Magazine Root and Branch

Jotting and plotting

Real gardeners need to keep a journal

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Whether they unleash your inner Andrew Carnegie or expose your suppressed Ebenezer Scrooge, there’s no dodging the seasonal gift round-up. Even we gardeners are portrayed as craving sailcloth smocks, traditional trugs, robotic lawnmowers and thermal weeders — not to mention gloves so luxurious it’s hard to envisage wearing them outdoors, let alone to rummage in the soil with. Then there are the gardening journals.

Stationery, it’s reported, is enjoying a boom. I admit that a love of stationery definitely played its part in my career
choice. I still collect notebooks of every shape and size, and even in years when I’ve been too busy to keep a diary
capacious enough for confidences and intrigue, I’ve kept an appointment diary. Do I really need a gardening journal though?

There’s something intensely appealing about a document that strives to capture the essence of hours spent coaxing life from the earth

As it turns out, the answer is what have I been waiting for? After all, it’s said the late, great Christopher Lloyd sometimes snubbed visitors to Great Dixter who asked the name of a plant without being able to brandish a notebook as proof of their seriousness.

A gardening journal is a place for logging inspiration gleaned on such visits, along with wishlists of plants and reminders of tasks. It’s where you can make a note of the weather and seasonal firsts — cutting the grass, planting out seedlings, digging up new potatoes. It provides space to sketch out plans and to record how things actually
turned out.

Nature writing can attract some clotted prose, so there’s something intensely appealing about a document that strives to capture with hard data and relatively few adjectives the essence of hours spent coaxing life from the earth. Gardening triumphs are often fleeting, and while that’s part of what makes them so dear, it doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to look back on past glories — or follies — when you’re already itching to get back out there and winter’s only just begun.

For garden historians, journals provide vital insights into gardening practices of the past. In the seventeenth century, for instance, Royalist and politician Sir John Reresby filled a narrow, vellum-covered jotter with lists of fruit trees, tulips and other specimens cultivated at his Thrybergh estate in Yorkshire. He was a man concerned, so his son wrote, with “the exactness and nicety” of his endeavours.

In Victorian England, an altogether humbler chap, one William Cresswell, left school to become an apprentice gardener. In 1990, the diary he kept during his two years working at Audley End turned up in a London fleamarket, its notes on the weather and planting schedules yielding vivid glimpses of the daily toil of a journeyman gardener at a great country house.

For garden historians, journals provide vital insights into gardening practices of the past

Gardening journals also provide personal links. In her recently published memoir, Grounding: Finding Home in a Garden, Lulah Ellender details the consolation provided by her mother’s garden diary, discovered after her death. Spanning a dozen years, its entries are succinct yet evocative: “Irises have been stunning. New space under lilac planted up & annuals sown.” As Ellender has explained, “Reading about her successes and struggles, I find echoes of my own — the grand hopes at the start of spring, and the disappointing failures as the growing season unfolds. I love seeing my own tasks reflected in her work over the years, finding solace in the sense of continuity that gardens offer us.”

When it comes to choosing a journal, the array of options can be confounding. They may span one year or five; some are packed with upbeat tips and seasonal reminders, others offer grids, charts, graph paper.

It’s perhaps best to heed the advice of plantsman Lloyd. Writing almost 20 years ago, he recommended a “sensible” notebook small enough to pocket and above all sturdy. His own favourite was the Scottish-made Alwych book, which was standard issue for British expeditions to Antarctica during the 1930s and still boasts an “all weather cover”.

To see how best to fill your journal, head to the archive at London’s Garden Museum, where Lloyd’s great friend Beth Chatto’s notebooks are kept. Offering a rounded and wonderfully eclectic portrait of her practice, their contents range from planting ideas to recipes and poetic descriptions of landscapes. She even found space for Christmas present lists.

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