When your Summer Garden Honeymoon is Over - Plotting Tomatoes
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When your Summer Garden Honeymoon is Over

At the beginning of the summer growing season, when the plants are growing lush and tall and nothing is ripe yet, there is a kind of anticipation and optimism that I feel because nothing is decided.  The outcome of the growing season is still months away, and the only thing ahead is pure possibility.
“That watermelon vine is going to give me amazing melons!” (notice the plural).
“That new Tie Dye tomato is going to be prolific and the tastiest thing I’ve ever grown!”
“That jalepeño will have spicy peppers this year!”

I recently returned from a week-long vacation to a—thankfully—live but completely overgrown garden. But, as I wandered down the rows to check on things, I started seeing it: little indications that things were NOT what they were supposed to be.

My awesome new ‘Cosmic Eclipse’ tomato had blossom end rot on some of the fruit (photo above)
The beans had dropped all their flowers and baby beans because there was a heat wave.
The butternut squash had dropped its two cute little squashes that I had photographed before I left.
The basil was full of holes from an unknown saboteur.
The Roma tomato had telltale Hornworm droppings everywhere.

And I felt that feeling I always get this time of year—like the beginning of disappointment. I’m sure the German language has some perfect, overly long adjective for the idea. It is so ridiculous, because I reliably feel this every year without fail, and you’d think I’d have worked though it by now.

Not you,  Green Tiger Zucchini. You’re always OK.

But what is happening here is really like life. Our expectations of things can far outpace our reality, especially if we are one of those “crazy optimists” (I admit it!). I let my imagination go wild every season, but because my garden is outside where actual bugs and weather live, I know in my heart that these imaginings can’t possibly manifest themselves in the real world. Well, sometimes. I’m a really lame optimist.

And this is where my ‘augmented memory’ AKA ‘my journal’ comes in and saves the day.

I have a terrible memory for some things, and several years ago one spring, I realized I had bought the same crummy summer squash variety two years in a row. How could I stop myself from doing that again, I wondered? I don’t even LIKE summer squash. I thought about some different approaches, but then realized that keeping a garden journal could actually be a useful tool. Not because I want to blather on poetic about my peas, but so I know which peas actually grew well, where I grew them, and if they were tasty. Was the weather odd that year? Did I do something different? Those are the details that I often forget year to year. Why invest time in something that is going to suck? Or keep making the same amateur mistake over and over? I don’t.

I’m looking at you, snowball cauliflower. Fool me twice…

I experimented for a while with different formats and layouts: first there was a prefab “garden journal” that had a lot of ridiculous worksheets I would never use framed with inspirational quotes set in fonts that set my teeth on edge—all packaged in a large, wonky format that couldn’t go out into the garden with me. That got donated. I tried an illustrator’s journal, but I found there was a lot more writing than illustrating going on (which as an illustrator, just made me feel guilty). I finally set myself up in a half-lined journal Husband gave me, decided to stop looking at Pinterest’s artful guilt machine, and instead made something that worked for me.

Every season, I roughly draw out my garden and list every plant I put in, when I planted it, and where it went. I leave a little space after each entry. It isn’t pretty or artistic in any way, but it works. At the end of the season, It’s RATING TIME. Each plant gets a note next to it letting me know if it was good or bad, and sometimes—if I feel really ambitious—I’ll give an end of season debrief where I’ll write down my favorites and the real stinkers.

and now I know, according to 2016, that the corn and Cherry Pick pepper can go suck it next year.

So how does this help the mid-season letdown? It helps me because I can see the struggles I had in previous years. How, in 2012, I had an entry that said “A Golden Crowned Sparrow ate all my baby beans, cucumbers and tomatoes despite the bird netting, and then it got tangled up in the netting after everything was gone. And I had to untangle that jerk and release it”. Or in 2011, I have a note that I “lost all the Shogoin turnips to root maggot. Yuck.” I remember being so incredibly excited to grow those turnips after buying a bunch at a farmer’s market the year before.

a post-season entry the year I tried to grow melons in coastal Oakland. Silly rabbit, melons are for hot climates.

But here’s the thing. If I look a few pages later, I can see that 2012 was the year I planted those awesome personal mini container gardens with the kids. It was also the first year I ever grew potatoes—which turned out to be so fun to harvest for everyone—and the first year I grew Dragon tongue bush beans, which are my all-time favorite bean. And I replanted all those tomatoes and cucumbers and got a great late harvest. It’s all there, written down.

I can see after looking through previous years, that even after a particularly bad blow, there were still so many awesome things that happened later in the season. I can then look at my current “tainted” garden and see that, even though I may have tomato worms, I have a huge harvest coming on that Roma. And after doing a little research, I’m hand pollinating the butternut squash with some initially good results. And I’m cutting back and replanting the basil, because I just can’t save it. And I’m ok with that.

And today I harvested my first Brandywine and Purple Cherokee tomatoes. They were blissfully delicious, and I was happy and thankful again to have my wonderful little piece of land to work. And I’m writing THAT down.

More on garden journaling:

Even if you don’t have a big space, having a low-pressure garden journal can really help you plan and become smarter about how you plant and use your garden. In addition to the areas I listed above, I also have a few other sections I like to add:

Notes: After the seasonal planting list I mentioned above, I like to take a page or two where I list some of the tasks I do during that season as I go. I’m not real strict about listing everything, but I will usually list the date and tasks that may be of interest later, like seeds I planted or plants I pulled, or if I tried a new fertilizer. I also try to list when I get the first harvest of each vegetable or sometimes how many and which kinds of tomatoes I pick. I think the trick is to write down things that are interesting to you, or tidbits you think you might need later.

Weather: I will sometimes list the date and weather, just to see how it varies year to year. I will always list if and how the weather affected the garden, such as this past winter, when there was so much rain that I lost everything in the garden except the Red Russian kale.

Yearly happenings that are specific to your garden: We have a fruiting mulberry tree in our front yard, and every year without fail, a huge flock of Cedar Waxwings comes and gorges on the fruit on the tree and then leaves in a few days. It is interesting to see how they always seem to know when the fruit is at its best, even though it varies year by year. I like to list the first day I see them. I also like to list the days my plum and quince trees go into flower—it really can vary wildly, and it is interesting to see how is corresponds with the weather year to year.

The Cedar Waxwings are super cute…

Learning notes: I used to have a scrapbook of gardening articles, but I almost never read through it. Now if I learn something I want to implement the following season that isn’t digital (those do go on Pinterest), I’ll just list it in the journal so I won’t lose it.

Planning notes: I am ridiculously anticipatory about the spring garden, so sometimes I’ll jot down planning notes for the upcoming season like varieties or new techniques I’d like to try. I rarely follow everything, but it sure is fun to plan!

Sun notes: When I’m getting familiar with a new gardening space, I have a whole section in the journal dedicated to how many hours of sun the current or future beds are getting over the course of the day. This could change over all four seasons, depending on where your beds are located. I try to note this over the course of one year so I know the full cycle. One full side of my garden in Oakland was in shade during winter, and I figured out by recording the hours of sun that I could start planting on that side on April 13 every year.

yes, it is a bad drawing, but it gets the job done!

But your journal should be your own. Maybe it is pink and glittery with purple insides or maybe it is vegan leather with recycled paper—you decide! Fill it with pressed flowers or drawings or educational articles or items that you think are interesting to you. Fill it out as much or as little as you want with information you want to know. And as it grows, you’ll also enjoy looking back and remembering your past gardens again as you read through it!

You won’t regret it!

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  • Jodi Davenport
    Posted at 15:12h, 03 July Reply

    Love the tips! After two years of tomato wilt I gave up completely, but I like how you frame things in terms of the big picture.

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