Gardeners, Take Note(s)!

Editor’s Note: We’ve been reaching back into Michelle Smith’s archive for gardening tips and this week, we found a good one about what to do when you’ve downed tools for the winter. (This column first appeared in November 2019).


What to do this week

It’s time to hang up my gardening hat for the season. Oh, there are a few outstanding tasks, like tending the winter kale and putting away this year’s seed crop in tightly lidded mason jars. But like the garden, it is time for this column to rest for a couple of months. I like to use this time to catch up on my notes from the past season. It is easier now to remember where I planted what this year, rather than look out blankly at the snow-covered field in March with nary a clue. Crop rotation matters even in a small garden so making a little sketch of this year’s final configuration will help when planning next year.

Every year I resolve to write in a daily journal all the successes and failures as they happen, but for me as for many people, determination does not always mean execution. It’s good to take time now to write down which tomatoes ripened this year and which were a bust. I planted lots of a new variety of Butternut squash, but despite its advertised early maturity, little of it ripened before Dorian hit. Being a moschata species I was able to finish ripening some of it indoors, but a lot of it rotted in the field. It was still worth trying again — without the hurricane, I had been looking at quite a healthy crop. It was a tough year all round, so anything that struggled through is worth noting.

Frozen Kale. Photo by Ruth Hartnup, Vancouver. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The importance of these field notes has increased in recent years. When I first started out, I learned from the old folks. It was easy to ask their advice whenever I wasn’t sure what to do. Long years of experience and a generosity of spirit made them excellent teachers. They grew up in a time where your skill at growing and your ability to use the resources at hand directly affected how well you ate each winter. You can’t overestimate the value of all those generations handing down their knowledge. In the age of the modern, you-can-buy-anything supermarket, we are shielded, for the time being, from the effects of distant droughts and crop failures, political unrest and market uncertainty. But there may come a time when we have to relearn what it means to feed ourselves.

Now I am becoming one of the old ones, but it isn’t always easy to sensibly communicate any wisdom I might have garnered. Changing weather means that our crops are experiencing stresses and pests not seen before. That new Butternut might have been alright even with Dorian if they hadn’t spent June in a greenhouse that was not much warmer than the outside air. When I planted them out July 5, it was more out of a forlorn hope that the weather would improve than from any evidence that it would. Putting this observation in my end of season notes might help me next year. Maybe I will leave them on the seedling heat mat a little longer.

When some friends were telling me about the problems they had with their garlic crop this year, I thought it sounded much like the fusarium infection my crop had experienced a few years ago. I had the benefit of a large reference library, but it was my personal experience that provided the key to identifying the problem. Until I brought it up, they thought that the problem was the high humidity when harvesting and curing.

Beckert’s Garden Annual 1949 By Beckert’s Seed Store. Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection via Wikimedia Commons

I have written often about waiting to plant until the apples are in bloom, but my notes tell me that they were two to three weeks late this year. And the purple asters bloomed early this fall, so I was not entirely surprised by the September frost shortly after the hurricane. Nature is also going to get caught flat-footed – that killing frost on June 21 in 2018 meant no tree fruit for me last year – but I figure she makes better guesses than I do as a rule. In 2018 the asters bloomed late into September and we were swimming in blackberries.

So, take some notes. What worked? What really didn’t? What was this year like compared to other years? Listen to your old people, and try to see the pattern in your own garden. Resiliency will mean trying new things, and relearning old. You don’t need to join a formal gardening club, but taking the time to chat with other gardeners can reignite ambition and produce new coping strategies even after a discouraging season. You don’t stop learning about gardening until you’re planted yourself. Before you know it, January will roll around, with its enticing array of nursery and seed catalogs. Next year, we get to play again.



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.