CULTIVATED: On keeping a notebook for the garden

Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid Oak Bay gardener.

In 1966, the great nonfiction writer Joan Didion wrote a personal essay titled ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ in which she discusses the intimacy of ephemera and her need to record observations of life’s details. It’s a gorgeous essay, more about how we change over time than about note-taking per se, which reminds me of how gardens change over time and how we – fallible and flawed – forget.

Plant names, origins, zones, preferences. Sun or shade? Perennial or biennial?

You don’t need to know everything to be a great a gardener, but you do need to know how to find what it is you need to know. And I’ll argue that your own notebook is the best place to start.

Enter the blank page, the recipe box, a map, or the spreadsheet – whatever spurs you to record the details of life outdoors.

My garden notebook lives on my potting bench. It’s black, hard-covered – a large sketchbook, wire bound, its pages notched address book-style (by me), A to Z.  Originally an inch thick, the book now bulges to an ungainly three inches given I have stapled plant tags into it. This stapling may not be the best idea given that plastic brittles with age, but the stapler is faster than hand-recording every detail and ease of use equates to likelihood of use in my life, particularly when it comes to systems of personal organization.

Given I have penchant for botanical Latin, I organize my notebook by plant name, not location. One problem with this alphabetical approach is that one must remember a plant’s genus. Failing that, a flip through is always fun and a solid endorsement for the plant tag approach—as we all know, when it comes to memory, pictures work. (A map or a what’s-in-which-bed guide can also jog a memory.)

My sketchbook gives me the option to jot notes: I record failures predominantly – what has died and why (if I know), or where I’ve moved a plant and when. Under ‘M’ for magnolia, this sad story unfolds: “Magnolia soulangeana ‘Rustica rubra’ 2009? Front road. No go – clay/wind. In rear border, ok. 2011: Needs staking? Colour 5/10.” Four years on, my notebook reminds me the magnolia doesn’t look much better and I’m due to cut my losses. The older I get, the more I realize most gardens are too small for meh.

I’ve assigned at least a few pages for each letter of the alphabet and lengthier ‘death’, ‘dahlia’ and ‘rose’ sections at the back.

I find happier notes under ‘P’: “Parahebe perfoliata, 2008. In damp. Repeat blue bloom.” Next to this note, I’ve sketched three stars. Later, I find Pittosporum ‘James Stirling’. “Hard hit by north wind, 2011: Needs new spot. Moved 2012, but needs more shade to stay bright green…’ That ellipsis is spot on: many plant stories never end. In the case of the Pittosporum, I should add, “2015 – Happy now with drainage. Great vase life.”

The beauty of designing your own notebook means you can record what it is you care about. I’m interested in bloom time and have noted Cephalaria gigantea as: “Excellent, pale yellow, begins June 15th,” or for the tall pink-blooming deer-proof perennial, Eupatorium aka Joe Pye-Weed, “August: Pink looks awful next to yellow. Move.”

Didion writes that her notebook is ‘an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.’ I hasten to agree. After six years, my book has swollen so that can never really be shelved. It will not go down in the annals of history. It will remain dirty, accessible, and useful. A record of who I was, what I wanted for my garden, and how together we have grown.

 

Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid Oak Bay gardener.

 

 

Just Posted

Black Press file photo
RCMP seek suspect in Vancouver Island-wide crime spree

Crimes stretched from Deep Bay to Qualicum, Ladysmith, Chemainus and Youbou

Karl and Stephanie Ann Johanson were thrilled to spot a pair of Sandhill Cranes in the Panama Flats this month, an unusual appearance for such birds. (Photo by Stephanie Ann Johanson)
WATCH: Sandhill cranes an unusual, joyful sight in Saanich parkland

The birds don’t often touch down in the south of the Island

Jesse Roper tackles weeds in his garden to kick off the 2021 season of What’s In My Garden Man? (YouTube/Whats In My Garden)
VIDEO: Metchosin singer-songwriter Jesse Roper invites gardeners into his plot

What’s In My Garden, Man? kicks off with the poop on compost

(Victoria Cool Aid Society/Facebook)
Victoria food drive aims to feed those also struggling with housing

Quadra Village furniture store hosting drive-thru event Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Victoria police are asking for witnesses who might have information about this tricycle that was stolen in downtown Victoria on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of VicPD)
Police seek witnesses after downtown Victoria company’s tricycle stolen

The three-wheeler was taken from the 2100-block of Store Street on Thursday

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Police are asking for public assistance in locating Anthony Graham who has been charged with the murders of Kamloops brothers Carlo and Erick Fryer. (RCMP photo)
2 charged, suspect at large in killings of B.C. brothers linked to gang activity: RCMP

Kamloops brothers Erick and Carlo Fryer were found deceased in May on a remote Okanagan road

Albert Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta 1st province in Canada to lift all COVID-19 public health restrictions

70.2% of eligible citizens 12 and older in the province have received a dose of the vaccine

Fraser Health registered nurse Ramn Manan draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Honour our fathers’ with COVID-19 vaccine protection, B.C. urges

109 new cases Friday, 75 per cent of 12 and up immunized

Freighters have becomd abundant in the Trincomali Channel on the east side of Thetis Island.
Nanaimo ponders taking on waste from nearby anchored freighters

Vancouver-based Tymac petitioning the Regional District of Nanaimo to accept waste at its landfill

(Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Trutch Avenue in Chilliwack to be renamed to remove racist taint

New name to have Indigenous significance as Chilliwack takes new step toward reconciliation

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a joint news conference following the EU-Canada Summit, in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday June 15, 2021. Trudeau says Canada is on track now to have 68 million doses delivered by the end of July, which is more than enough to fully vaccinate all 33.2 million Canadians over the age of 12. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine deliveries enough to fully vaccinate all eligible Canadians by end of July

Three in four eligible Canadians now have their first dose, nearly one in five fully vaccinated.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant grew in Canada this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s public health agency reports spike in confirmed cases of Delta variant

More than 2,000 cases of the variant confirmed across all 10 provinces and in one territory

Most Read