When you run a mental inventory of your garden tools, you likely think of things such as rakes, hoes, shovels, trowels, gloves, watering can and mower. But there are a couple of important tools you may not consider: a camera and a notebook.
It's exceptionally valuable to chronicle your garden successes, as well as other design ideas that you see. As a landscape professional, I try to document all my jobs, not just to keep track of the landscape design for each client, but also to show prospects what we do. I also take along a camera, and often a tape recorder, when traveling. If I see a planting arrangement I like, or one that fits a certain need, I will snap a picture or record my impression of the scene.
I have often driven back to a site with a camera to get pictures of ideas that I saw while jogging -- such as birch with flowers planted underneath or a property that offered a solution for screening tall decks using deciduous trees. In Canada recently, my wife was snapping pictures of the beautiful street plantings, including some medians where chartreuse sweet-potato vines were cascading over the curb and into the street.
You don't have to jog to find great ideas. If you stroll around your neighborhood, take a camera. In addition, some commercial plantings at malls and office buildings can provide ideas that will translate into home gardens. I like the way Whole Foods in Silver Spring uses grasses to soften the look of brick and concrete (an idea for a driveway) and the way the Swedish home design emporium IKEA groups big white pots with simple, colorful flowers in threes around its outdoor cafe area (an idea for a deck or patio).
Planters and displays at garden centers or in public places are superb potential pictures. Homestead Gardens' hanging baskets for Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore are gorgeous little mini-gardens that would be great to copy on a porch or on an apartment balcony.
Botanic gardens and arboretums are also great sources of ideas, and can be snapped from a car window, or as you hike along a trail at the National Arboretum or one of the other public or private gardens in the region.
In short, the world is a smorgasbord of gardening ideas. You can't possibly remember them all, unless you take a quick picture or jot a scheme down in a pocket notebook.
I have always used a film camera, but today's technology makes it easier than ever to create a photographic record of your gardening ideas and activities. You can use a digital camera and transfer the ideas to a file in your computer (a good winter "gardening" activity). Or you can use one of the new camera cell phones to take pictures as you go about your daily activities. Send yourself an e-mail with extra notes, such as the location, in case you want to go back and take another look.
In addition to gathering ideas, use your camera, notebook and recorder to comparison shop. Perhaps you have a spot for a shrub, and aren't sure what you want. Head off to the garden center to take pictures of several choices -- hydrangea, purple beautyberry, crape myrtle, deutzia and euonymus. Look at them in your garden to see which you like. Note their cultural requirements and characteristics in your notebook or on your tape, then check conditions at your site.
Looking for a big urn? Take snapshots of the ones you like and look at them in the space. Use the images to plan a garden, laying them out in various combinations until you get some that are especially pleasing. Plant the ideas and build on the photos every year.
The most helpful use of your camera, notebook and recorder in the garden is to document what you did, and what nature does, through the seasons.
Bulb planting is a good example. It seems that no matter how many times you do it, when the flowers appear, it's a little surprising. "Did I put white daffodils there? I thought they were over here." Taking a picture of bulbs in flower is an excellent way to remember, come fall when it's time to plant more and there's no trace of just where the existing ones are.
Azalea colors are a classic example of the need to document. I have heard so many clients lament not marking their azaleas while they were blooming, so they would know what to move or keep.
Pictures can also help you decide what to plant -- more bulbs or something else? If you know when, where and how something bloomed, it is easier to see what you need to plant to make it more ornamental, offer continuous bloom and have favorite colors in the places you want them.
It seems to take forever to establish a great perennial bed. By documenting the succession of blooms, you can tell where there are gaps that need to be filled, or color arrangements that need to be changed. If you have photos or notes, you will know when the black-eyed Susans went kaput and when the asters bloomed.
It's also a good idea to take pictures of all plantings, so you can keep track of the growth of hedges and trees, and see where screening might be inadequate or where a tree is growing so rapidly it might soon crowd out other plants. Overall views help you objectively stand back and see what is working and what is not.
Your photographs and notebook entries are how you remember what worked and what didn't. Be sure to note that when you trimmed the dogwood, the hostas underneath got too much sun, so they might have to be moved. However, the annual lantana did magnificently in hot sun, bloomed all summer and is a great candidate for planting again next year.
Also, keep track of problems. You won't be thinking about crab grass in April unless you have a record of it invading in August. The same goes for black spot on your roses -- unless you have shots of the diseased leaves in September. Many weeds and diseases need to be treated before they appear. Your record keeping will help you identify issues that need to be addressed.
Finally, we have all had those defining moments in the garden, that late summer afternoon when we look around and everything seemed just about perfect. Get the camera to record and remember that beauty when the dead of winter makes it seem that nothing, not even dandelions, will ever bloom again.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.