"Planted five rows of potatoes ... and put old thatch in four of the trenches, and peat dust in one for experimental sake... Those planted on old peat dust were superior to those on old thatch."
So wrote Gilbert White, the famous middle-class gardener whose kitchen garden diaries, written in the mid seventeen hundreds, were published in 1975, and give a detailed account of English gardening in this period. Historic gardening diaries make fascinating reading and, this week, I came across two which were much closer to home. The first was given to me by a friend in her nineties who had discovered an old accounts ledger down the back of a bookshelf in her home. It had been kept less as a record of domestic accounts and more as a kitchen garden diary. Once I got to grips with the copper-plate script, I was able to learn how many packets of seed had been ordered, from whom they were purchased, and how reliable they were in terms of germination. There was also an account of the weather over a period of years, and how well crops had fared as a result. So interesting.
The second gardening diary I discovered was my own! It was written in 1988, making it over 25 years old, and it was a very thorough account of the vegetables I usually grew, at what time it was best to sow or plant each, and the month in which I could expect to harvest my produce. I had written it for friends who were to stay in our home and tend our garden while my husband and I took a year-long cycling tour in Europe. (I hasten to add that I have never since kept such a thorough record of anything I do in the garden – I think a baby and a writing career rather got in the way of that!) But, just his week, as I was pulling from my garden the crops of mature shallots and garlics, and hanging them over various racks to speed up the drying of their tops, I did make a mental note of how useful it would be to know just how many bulbs I had planted back in early spring. If I kept some sort of record, it would take all the agonising guess work out of deciding how much of the harvest should be retained for sowing next season. I quickly scurried into the house to grab a pencil and a notebook.
Like many of us, I suppose I do already keep some sort of mental record of sowings. When our son left home, for example, I figured we'd probably manage with two rather than five sacks of spuds for the year. When My husband switched from being vegetarian to vegan, I made a note to sow the equivalent of 45 metres of carrots rather than our usual 30. When the price of onions shot sky high a few years ago, I tripled the space given over to shallots (it being too cold in our part of the world for growing onions). Not that it always works, of course. Last summer was very hot and our 8 courgette plants produced far too many fruits for us to eat. This summer (well, there wasn't one, actually) the 18 plants we grew produced barely enough to supply two people.
But for basics, especially winter vegetables that can't be sown and grown in a matter of weeks, it really does make sense to keep records. It not only saves time umm-ing and ah-ing over how much to plant or sow, it also saves money. If you really do need only a few metes of carrots, why buy three packets of seed? If the forty spud seed you sowed last spring didn't see you through the year, and you were forced to buy expensive new potatoes before you really wanted to, sow more potatoes next season. If you know in advance that twenty garlic bulbs is more than enough for the family, why plant out more and use up valuable garden space that could be occupied by something more useful?
It makes a lot of sense to me to keep a diary. It may be a pain to dash inside for a pencil and a notebook, but by keeping a garden record, however basic, I know how much easier decisions will be next year (that's if my diary hasn't disappeared down the back of the bookshelf by then!).