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How to keep a gardening calendar

Updated on November 8, 2009

There are any number of excellent  reasons for keeping a traditional gardening calendar. The calendar is probably the best way of organizing tasks and setting reminders from the vast amounts of esoteric knowledge the gardener accumulates. However, that’s an awful lot of information, and a series of well-informed scrawls and notes usually arises, with or without any clues to what they mean. Some level of indecipherability also assists people in spending more time trying to figure out what they meant than doing the actual work. The risk is that the calendar will become a form of scheduled disorganization.

When making a gardening calendar, DON’T:

  1. Use an ordinary calendar. No room for much more than scribbles.
  2. Use unfamiliar terminology, something from a gardening show you just saw, or a textbook you can’t find.
  3. Include too much detail. Space is important, and so is clarity.
  4. Make an onerous task out of the work on the calendar, or the calendar itself. It can become a chore, and it doesn’t need to be.
  5. Use unrealistic time frames for major efforts like mulching, pruning, weed control, fertilizers, pest control, and the rest of the epic, trying to fit them all in like they were an appointment book. It won’t work.
  6. Become pedantic or obsessive about work scheduling. Gardens are pretty subjective things, and necessary work shouldn’t be left undone because “The calendar said so.” The real problem with this approach is that it tends to reduce the effectiveness of keeping a calendar in the first place.

When making a gardening calendar, DO:

  1. Use a diary form of calendar with some extra pages for proper notation. It doesn’t have to be flash, but it does have to be workable. 
  2. Think about your entries, and make sure they’re clear. Write in capitals if you have to, but don’t make the classic error of including vital information in some microscopic jotting over another bit of text.
  3.  Always be specific about tasks. Express them as well as you can, and include references, like names (and preferably page numbers) of text books, so you can read instructions, or brand names, so you don’t lose useful information.
  4. Make sure you know what you consider enough information to do the work. This is vital. “Prune roses” is a lot of information about what you’re supposed to be doing… and none whatsoever about what sort of time frame and other related work is involved. With roses, it can be a lot, and two words just will not cover it all.  It is perfectly possible that while using the calendar as a work sheet, you will just naturally not do anything that’s not on it.
  5. Keep the calendar meaningful. It should only contain relevant information. It’ll look a little sparse at first, but you can be assured that notes will fill in the gaps.
  6. Note any new information related to the tasks, and delete obsolete information. If you’ve discovered some new way of dealing with weeds, like you’ve finally got those weed mats you promised your grandmother you’d buy, the whole weed control entry should be revised. It affects your time frames, and it’s therefore relevant to the calendar.
  7. Read your existing entries in advance, so you have some time to think about what you’re going to do. “Bed preparation” has given people more cases of strained backs and sunstroke than it’s pleasant to consider. If you’ve got some manual labor coming up, read about it a month beforehand, and figure out every laborsaving method you can. The same applies to the delicate, time consuming tasks like pruning, or anything else that can use up a whole weekend.
  8. Use the calendar for visualization of projects as well as maintenance. Make notes of the things you intend to do, and think about your best options. Keep it real. Avoid anything that places excessive demands on your time, budget or health.

In practice, the calendar is a planning process. It can save you a lot of work if you start from a principle of time management, rather than specific tasks.

For example, in a big garden, mulching alone can be a real time consumer. Different plants with different needs are demanding, and a variety of situations can arise if you allow them. For major work, there are a few easy organizational things you can do which will save you a lot of time:

  1. Schedule the big things over a realistic period. If you treat them as one job, not several, a lot will be achieved.
  2. Use some lateral thinking and arrange the calendar as a guide for preparation. For mulching the whole garden, you will need to organize so that you have the mulch/mulches ready, have the beds ready, and have everything set up to just lay the mulch in one single swoop. So the entry for mulching tells you to allow for all of these things. This is admittedly bordering on the self explanatory, but it’s amazing how many basic things can be left out, because they seem obvious at the time.
  3. Always be specific about your tasks, no mysterious cryptic messages to yourself. Try “Potatoes- lift bed” and “Potatoes- add mulch, plant seed potatoes”. Note that “Potatoes” doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt.
  4. Dates are actually too arbitrary. Seasons are more important, and there’s no reason not to be opportunistic if you can get something done quickly, and free up more time and space. Just keep the calendar current, not because you need to tell yourself what you’ve done, but because you can now see what else you can do with that extra time.
  5. Use the calendar to make sure you don’t overload yourself with “things to do” that are all bunched together. You need to be able to think about each task, and in practice, if you’ve scheduled yourself into trying to do too much, some things won’t get done, and others will be done badly, or in a hurry.

Gardeners have a mystic saying, believed to have originated from a self confessed rose grower, which as any gardener knows is an indictment of itself, coming from this hardy breed of professional grunters:

“IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING- DON’T DO IT.”

This saying applies to calendars in a very unambiguous way. The calendar is a method of reviewing what you intend to do. Be warned in advance. Are there any unfamiliar chemicals, tools, or plants involved? If so, your calendar has already done you a service. It’s telling you that you have some preliminaries to address.

Most experienced gardeners would sympathize with the Call Of The Wild in new soil treatments, plantings, experiments, and ambitious new projects. The mad scientist part of gardening is tremendous fun.

However- 

  1. Gardening chemicals can be dangerous, (there are some I just will not use, because they’re neurotoxins) both to you, your family, pets, and your plants, and you really do need to know how to handle them, unless a posthumous class action appeals to you as a fitting memorial.
  2. Tools need to be used properly. If you’ve suddenly decided to take up topiary, you’ll also have noticed that professional topiarists are quiet, reticent, people. This is partly because they like being enigmatic, and partly out of respect for would-be topiarists who didn’t make it. All garden tools are potentially dangerous, and only a fool would use a power tool without having learned how to operate the thing.
  3. New plants are an unalloyed joy. Few gardeners deprive themselves of this pleasure, and most manage to kill a fairly large number of their plants because they just didn’t bother with the details of planting. All plants have their quirks, and you need to know them from the roots up.
  4. Experimentation and new projects require time and patient observation. The idea of planting a stand of Blue Atlas Cedars along the drive to your house is aesthetically pleasing, and will also probably eventually destroy all life in the vicinity, in addition to wiping out the plumbing, drainage and wiring. The things grow at least forty metres tall, and the root system is equally impressive. They’re also slow growers, and you can wind up with a line of straggly shrubs with a bit of effort. You need time to research, and time to create space for experimental plantings. Some plants are highly destructive when introduced into the garden, some attract pests, some are inclined to shade others. Planning, and more planning, are required.

The calendar should work like a street directory. You know where you’re trying to go, how to get there, and what’s supposed to happen on the way. They are invaluable, if you use them properly and realistically.

One more suggestion. Traditional calendars now have a few new assets and possibilities:

A computerized calendar, like a Word document, using a table, is a very positive thing.

You can organize entries, search words, add references, highlight things, and create a very useful personal record.

You can print out what you need, and make notes a lot more efficiently. You can also upload your calendar and notes to a website, or a blog, and you can store the information much more effectively.

You can also include pictures, and downloaded materials, in a coherent way, without having to refer to separate texts.

I wish you all the fun in the world with your gardening. Keep your calendar dry and you mind open, and the joys of gardening will come looking for you.

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