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I am a very practical soul. One of the ways my practicality manifests in my gardening is that I have a very firm rule about only planting things that are edible. It’s similar to my notetaking rule of thumb in that I only save things that are useful. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like the metaphor that a collection of notes is a digital garden.
Beauty Can Be Impractical
Without any intent to “throw shade,” often when I look around the internet at pictures of people’s notebooks, they strike me as a bit impractical. 90% of what I see in neighbors’ gardens are ornamental plants in neatly mulched beds that require more maintenance than my car and produce remarkably little of practical use. The bullet journal corner of Instagram is remarkably similar. Most of the spreads you can find there are absolutely beautiful, difficult to replicate, and either track things that I don’t value in the least or are so troublesome to maintain that I give up in short order—or both.
Lots of people love roses. There are tons of sayings about them, like “stop and smell the roses.” I personally don’t like roses very much; the smell is a bit saccharine to my nose, they’re heckin’ expensive, and I’ve never understood the whole “they’re beautiful enough to brave the thorns for” metaphor with beautiful prickly women. My house came with roses and they’re forever getting in the way of taking out the trash. The thorns make it hard to suppress the weeds and even with stones and plastic there’s grass growing up into the bush. I haven’t had a chance to dig them out yet, and only once have I ever bothered to pick their flowers.
Yet I’d still rather grow roses, whose flowers and berries actually are edible, than something like daffodils. Maybe next year I’ll finally get around to making rosehip jam.
Beauty Can Be Practical
My favorite bullet journal spreads have always been very minimalist. Neat consistent handwriting with a quality blue or black pen, clear symbols, there’s something incredibly soothing to it, like a perfectly pruned backyard apple tree, or one of those blueberry bushes at my local garden center that has been carefully clipped and trained until it’s bursting with berries even though it’s only about a cubic foot big.
Personally, my handwriting isn’t that neat or that consistent, and I’m much too inconsistent to maintain a perfect backyard orchard of blueberries or apples or whatever. I admire those places, I enjoy visiting, I try to pick up tips about pruning and soil composition as appropriate, but I am, in the end, a hobbyist gardener. I enjoy my garden; I enjoy taking notes. But I’m not a professional farmer; I’m not an academic who needs to aggressively maximize efficiency and yield in a publish-or-perish world. I’m certainly not the “big agriculture” Midwestern agricorp equivalent of a notetaker; I’m not a Buzzfeed journalist churning out articles on tight deadlines, I’m not a prolific, self-employed thought leader supporting myself on a six-figure salary from my writing, like Scott Alexander.
I’m a public school teacher who blogs and sells fiction on the side; I grow sage and lavender and thyme and blueberries for the dinner table, not the supermarket.
Sage has beautiful lilac-purple flowers, smells incredible, & my local bees love it. Unlike hyacinths, it spreads and is easy to propagate. As a bonus, it’s really easy to harvest (unlike thyme!) and the big leaves are comparatively trivial to dry and grind. For folks who think that the easy spread of sage is a drawback, cutting back sage is not any harder than deadheading hyacinths (which my mom loves, but I always found to be sort of monotonous). I cut one sage bush back to two tiny leaves last winter and it’s a whole bush again already.
You Don’t Have To Maximally Optimize
If you read gardening guides, there are all sorts of rules about when you need to plant sage or basil or whatever, when you can cut it back, how far to cut it back, how much pH the soil needs to have, how much sunlight it needs, what you can safely plant next to it… It’s overwhelming.
So overwhelming that if I actually tried to follow all of the rules I would probably just never plant anything. I don’t have time to be a professional farmer, mulch is expensive, and complications from my pregnancy have made it hard for me to do heavy labor like annual tilling.
At first I made it a point to plant things that didn’t need babying. Mint, for example, carefully containerized (then it almost died so I replanted it into the main garden, where it’s been fine). I laid out a soaker hose, got some fertilizer… and honestly never used either, because my plants did fine. Eventually I picked up some sage, some thyme, a raspberry bush, whatever they had at the store that looked fun. I planted three blueberry bushes in the same bed; one did fine, one died, and one is barely hanging in there and only three years later, after I shrugged and started choking it out with mint, did it finally start to expand.
I could have driven myself crazy trying to eke out the extra 2% of potential yield from my garden, but if I’m being honest, I only use the stuff I grow every now and then. A bit of mint as garnish in a fancy of pie or drink when I have guests, sage and rosemary at holidays, a couple of raspberries or tomatoes as I’m walking by and want a taste. I don’t make a production out of it. It makes me happy, it’s there when I need it, and it lets me share some of the harvest with friends when I have time.
One year I mailed 4 gallon bags of sage to friends around the country — another I gave away a bunch of cucumbers. It’s not so different from how I occasionally find that my notes have borne fruit I can share with friends online.
Situations Can Change Pretty Quick
The thing about gardening is that you can control a lot of the process, but there’s also a lot you can’t control. Good irrigation practices — or good old-fashioned hand-watering — can mitigate mild drought conditions, and you can stake up tomatoes in strong winds, but there’s not a whole lot you can do about a hurricane sitting on top of your region for two weeks. When that happens, your tomatoes or watermelons or whatever are going to burst and there’s just not a lot you can to about it. Some years, the sun and clouds just don’t cooperate with your planting schedule, and your harvest suffers as a result.
Of course, the opposite can be true. Some years, for whatever reason, every rotten half-eaten vegetable scrap you toss into your compost pile germinates into beautiful plants that survive their transition perfectly. Sometimes the weather is perfect, the stars align, and you get more cucumbers and peppers than you know what to do with. Sometimes that old rotten cucumber you didn’t bother to clean up sprouts and you wound up with delicious bonus tzatziki sauce.
As a gardener, you have to leave room to be flexible, adapt, and take advantage of changing conditions. Automated sprinklers are worse than useless in the middle of a hurricane in the same way that automatic task management systems can run amock and overwhelm if your life situation changes. Sometimes you stumble across a great piece of information that doesn’t quite fit but you can’t bring yourself to pass up, and it ends up recentering your whole knowledge base.
Sometimes Conventional Wisdom Doesn’t Apply
When I planted asparagus, I mostly did it on a whim. It was the beginning of the pandemic and it was almost impossible to get herbs and vegetable plants at the garden centers, but they had asparagus and hey, I like asparagus. The directions that came with the asparagus roots I picked up from the garden center on a whim were very clear: asparagus doesn’t tolerate competition. It needs to be planted in need rows. It needs to be weeded aggressively.
I buried 3 root balls in different ends of my garden. One spot is pretty shaded, gets really wet and has consistently had a ton of weeds. The other is near to my lavender bush (tiny at the time, it has since all but overrun my poor tarragon lol) and has much better soil (as in, it’s compost not fill dirt). I took good care of that spot; removed any stray weeds promptly, checked it out often since it’s in front of my dining room window, staked up the asparagus trunks so the wind wouldn’t knock them over…
The asparagus I planted over in the wet weedy spot didn’t really sprout at first. I figured the root balls were dead or drowned. When I planted Brussels sprouts and broccoli there the previous year, the insects destroyed them. The nearby raspberry bush had sent a bunch of runners there, which I didn’t pull out because I like raspberries and figured that spot was doomed anyway. It’s half-overrun with dandelions and clovers.
Wouldn’t you know it, the asparagus finally sprouted and is doing great? Way better than in the spot I bothered to maintain; all the stalks are huge and flowering and have basically formed a giant mass with a couple of stubborn raspberry branches poking through the cloud of fronds.
Notetaking is a lot like that. There are all kinds of strict guides out there about the optimal way to care for a notetaking system, conventional wisdom about what you “must” do else you get overwhelmed or your notes die an ignoble death, habits (like weeding) that are vital… and honestly, they work for some people, but my asparagus is doing great, my kid loves playing with the fronds, and my mint is my most well-behaved plant — in total defiance of all the “mint will take over everything you have to plant it in a container or it will choke out your everything.”
My real problem is controlling the oregano and would you believe it, I’ve actually accidentally killed two separate mint plants? But the “delicate, finicky” asparagus I planted in my trickiest corner and totally ignored is doing fine!
What I’m trying to say here is that you’ve got to go into these things with an open mind and an experimental attitude or you’ll never learn what works for you. Refusing to toss an interesting idea into your notes because conventional wisdom says they’ll never grow into something useful is needlessly limiting if you’ve got time to play around and see what happens.
But Often Conventional Wisdom is Right
Of course, you don’t see me planting prickly pear cactus in my garden, or cutting back my sage to ground-level the way I do roses or raspberries. There’s a lot to be learned from those who come before, particularly if we stop and think about the advantages and disadvantages of different methods. I don’t want to use industrial fertilizer in my garden, but there are some nifty tricks out there about what plants can help deter common pests that plague companion plants. It’s fine to deviate and experiment, but having a strong base level of knowledge can keep you from going too far off the rails and trying to grow potatoes in a gutter meant for strawberries.
Similarly, concepts like “atomic notes” and guidelines like “you don’t need to have 17 levels of nested folders” can really save you a lot of trouble in the long run. Home Depot and my local library both offer gardening classes & workshops, and I think they do a lot of good for the world. The Home Depot ones are obviously put together with the intention that gardeners will buy supplies from Home Depot, but that doesn’t mean that gardens are scams, and I feel pretty much the same way about online notetaking workshops — even though I’m about as unlikely to attend one as I am to show up to a gardening class at the library. I have a kid and very limited time. I barely manage to weed, and lately I’ve even had to drop down to the “reserves” list for my fiction-writing workshop, which runs on six week cycles and introduced me to my maid of honor and my son’s favorite babysitter. But I have friends and relatives who’ve gotten a lot out of even the really expensive workshops like Clarion West and New York Pitch, and as with many things in life, it all comes down to what fits your lifestyle.
You Don’t Have To Use Everything
I only bother to do big harvests in my garden once or twice a year. Lavender smells beautiful, looks great compared to a lot of grassy decorative plants, and butterflies love it. So what if I only make lavender bread once or twice a year? It’s not like the bush is going to waste.
I cut back some of my blackberry vines and the oregano that was flopping over into the yard and porch a couple of weeks ago. I tossed the vines into my compost pile and hung the oregano up to dry. It’s been dry for awhile now and I haven’t had a chance to pull the leaves off the stems and grind them into powder. This is not a crisis. The oregano is dry. It’s not going anywhere. It’ll keep until I get a chance to work with it, and there’s no sense in beating myself up about the unfinished task in the meantime.
I don’t have to use every note I take for my “rule” about only collecting things I can think of a way to use for my writing to be a good one. If I actually tried to follow through on all my ideas I would be miserable. But there’s value in writing them down, just like there’s value in having sage ready-to-hand.
Usefulness Is Subjective
Usefulness is in the eye of the beholder, anyway. Thyme & creeping rosemary make amazing groundcover. For that matter, rosemary makes a nice alternative to little trees for hanging holiday lights in winter.
I’m working on replacing the grass in my kid’s play area with thyme because it’s great at suppressing weeds, smells wonderful, and doesn’t require mowing in all the tight spaces between his toys. If I never harvest a single leaf of it, it will still have been useful. It’s not “wasteful” to miss the opportunity to harvest and dry and cook with the herbs I’m planning to grow back there, even though I could if I want to.
Incidentally, if you want a pretty useful flowering plant, nasturtiums are the way to go. They’re edible in salads and frankly less annoying to grow than lettuce or spinach because it doesn’t bolt.
Don’t Judge Yourself Based On Others
The journal spreads, sample notes, and garden photos shared on the internet are typically things people are proud of. The stuff they’ve worked hard on. It’s inherently curated; it’s natural. Even folks who aren’t selling anything at all are more likely to share something they either actively want feedback on or something they are proud of. So it’s automatically a skewed sample, and you don’t often see the perfectly fine gardens that have weeds, or are unbalanced, or have gone to seed. Genuinely messy uncurated digital gardens are pretty rare, too, although they certainly do exist in the same way that some people have managed to get native wildflower lawns going.
Different Rules for Different Use-Cases
My rule about only planing edible stuff works for me because it provides a useful boundary to contain my interests into something manageable. It’s a niche I’ve chosen because it’s convenient, not because it’s inherently superior. There are plenty of useful plants that aren’t edible!
Tamarisk trees are amazing at cooling the air in salty desert environments, and shade trees in general are handy to have if that’s what you’re into. I totally understand why we don’t plant fruit trees in cities – I grew up underneath proliferate walnut and mulberry trees, boy howdy do I understand how annoying they can be. While most herbs are gorgeous, useful and easy to live with, I wouldn’t want an entire orchard of walnut trees if I just needed a shady yard.
My local park has several gardens that prioritize pollinators and native plants, which I think is great. If I knew where to go to get native cultivars of useful pollinator plants I would seriously consider it, but unfortunately when I looked I couldn’t find any good resources, and frankly I started gardening at a point in my life when I was making below the poverty line wages. I built my habits because spices and fresh fruit are expensive when purchased commercially.
My preferred way to learn gardening or notetaking is to investigate the conventional wisdom, apply it in a low-stress way, see what happens, and iterate. But I’m not a farmer, a park ranger, an academic or a professional project manager. I’m just some lady on the internet who likes to learn stuff and share stories.
You do you!
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).