My garden’s paper trail is a bulging folder on my desk. In it are large, folded pieces of graph paper with garden plans scribbled in haste, legible only to me. There are receipts from seed and plant companies, with lists of what I have purchased. When I lift the folder, small scraps of paper fall out of it with notes to myself about what to grow or tips from gardening friends. If I tilt it, soil rains down on the desk, mostly from the plastic plant labels I stick in there, in hopes that they’ll help identify the flowers from which they are now parted. Most of the file’s contents are stained with muddy fingerprints, and the words often blurred by rain.
Gardeners are not necessarily born pack rats; it’s just that keeping detailed records can be as vital to the success of a garden as proper soil preparation. The data will remind you of varieties that have excelled over the years and, as important, the ones that did not.
Ideally, there would be one folder per year, each with a plan of the vegetable garden’s projected crop rotations and meticulous records of the date each crop was sown, transplanted and harvested. There’d be full evaluations of every fruit, vegetable, herb and flower variety grown. But this great wad of paper will have to do. Given the rush of spring planting, the summer weeding and fall’s race against frost, it’s a wonder anything is written down.
Besides, there’s photography for backup, especially now that it’s digital, with every image dated. Pictures don’t tell me how a particular tomato tasted, but if I include the plant marker at the end of the row in the shot, I’ll at least know what it was, and if I step back and shoot the whole garden, I’ll know exactly where. This helps me avoid growing the same vegetables or their close relatives in the same spot each year.
I also shoot the garden just for the beauty of it. Vegetables, in their tidy rows, are more cooperative subjects than flowers are. The best time to capture them is in early morning before the light is harsh, especially if the sun comes up through a faint mist. The golden light of late afternoon is also very flattering. Leaves of lettuce, spinach and other greens, backlighted by the low-angled sun, are jewellike, as are the purple blossoms of eggplants. Early morning is the time to catch the huge, wide-open yellow trumpets of squash blossoms. Orange pumpkins and other brightly colored fruits are gorgeous with fall tree foliage in the background. Overcast days give the most clarity of detail.
These images, of course, illuminate the garden’s flaws as well. If I want a handsome record of my garden’s progress through the year, the beds must be weeded, the plants staked as needed and the tools put away after use, since there’s often no time to do that within the time window of perfect light. The camera doesn’t lie — well, not unless you move it a little to the left or right. But who needs to know about that?
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of The Garden Primer .
Read more about growing your own food at washingtonpost.com/vegetablegardens.