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How to Start a Garden Journal

By: Sherri RibbeySherri Ribbey
If you've wanted to start a garden journal (or get back to using one!), check out these tips from artist and teacher, Carrie Carlson.

Carrie Carlson Garden Journal Illustrations: Nature illustrations and notes from Carrie Carlson's garden journal.

Connect with nature with a garden journal

A garden or nature journal is a great way to slow down, reconnect with the natural world and get to know your garden better. Carrie Carlson is an artist and teacher who brings her journal with her wherever she goes. When she sees something interesting, whether it’s in her yard or on one of her favorite walks, she makes a quick sketch or takes a few notes. Whether you’re interested in starting a journal to keep better records of your garden or would like another outlet for your creativity, Carrie has some tips that can help.

Ask questions and record what you see

Keeping a journal is about really paying attention to the world around you and using images, words or even numbers to record what you see. You can include sketches, as Carrie does — see some of her journal pages here—or even write a poem. Or you can simply note facts: Count blooms, record dates, keep track of weather events. Everyone notices different things and has their own style — there’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal!

garden journal illustrations grouping Carrie Carlson: Carrie likes to draw the plant life she encounters and adds a date to keep track of time of year.

Finding inspiration for your journal

If getting started seems intimidating and you don’t know what to put in your journal, Carrie suggests focusing on one plant or a small area of the garden that you enjoy. Then look at it from different angles, count the plants, petals or leaves and note where are they positioned and how they relate to others nearby. Get curious and ask yourself questions about what you see.

If you come across a new plant, insect or bird, try not to check a field guide or your phone to identify it at first. Taking the time to look carefully will improve your observational skills and provide you with details to fill your journal.

Garden journal prompts to try

When Carrie is teaching a class on journaling, she has the group walk through an exercise she learned from nature journaling guru, John Muir Laws. It helps students get started and build confidence: She shares a photo of her two cats looking out the door and offers the students these writing prompts:

  • I notice…
  • I wonder…
  • This reminds me of...
    You can use this exercise with any photo or outdoors in the garden.

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Observe garden patterns in your journal

By noting details large and small in the garden or on a daily walk, you’ll discover things you hadn’t noticed before, such as which flowers are most popular with butterflies vs. bees, when the backyard border has the most flowers or which vegetables have the best harvest or fewer pest problems. Carrie likes to keep a perpetual journal: She revisits the same spots over 10 days several times each year. From year to year and month to month, different plants stand out. The sketches above highlight some of the observations in her perpetual journal. Reviewing past journals can help bring to light seasonal timelines or trends that might have slipped your notice. These insights can help you make a vegetable garden more productive, borders more flowery and your garden the place you’ve always dreamed it would be. 

Tips for choosing your garden journal

In her years of journaling, Carrie’s developed some favorite pens, papers and other tips. Here are a few things to look for:

  • Find a journal that’s easy to hold and fits nicely into your favorite bag. You might have to try several before you find one you like.
  • Choose the right paper. Carrie likes a journal with high-quality mixed media paper because it doesn’t buckle when she uses water-based media. You could also try all-weather paper for outdoor use.
  • Make your own journal using scraps of paper cut to the size you like. Carrie found that the local office supply store will put a spiral binding on her stack of scraps for a minimal fee.
  • Try Micron™ pens. They have a range of colors and widths that she likes using for both writing and drawing.

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Published: Jan. 14, 2024

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