“Are you from the past?” asked my daughter this morning when she came down to the dining room table to find me writing in my garden journal.

I raised my eyebrows pointedly and swept my hand over the table as if to present exhibits for the defense. My phone sat inches away from my right hand, Instagram up and active, Spotify streaming somewhere in the background.  My laptop was open to my left, Google primed and ready, ungodly amounts of email downloading as I multitasked.  I was showered, dressed and somewhat vibrant compared to the sloppy, sweatshirt-clad interrogator in front of me (wearing, I might add, neon socks better suited to a previous decade).

No matter. I was holding a pen.  I was writing on paper.  I was using cursive.

garden journal

Keeping a journal in written form grants you easy accessibility with less screen time – something we could all use. Computer-generated plant lists can be hole-punched and added later.

“Well, if you’re talking about the recent past, then yes.” I answered, nullifying my case with a longwinded reply.

“Remember, your entire life represents only a percentage of mine – I’ve got a bottle of sloe gin in the drinks cabinet that’s older and better travelled than you, and…”

It was over before I could make it to my first scathing adverb. She’d already grabbed her phone, keys and an apple, pecked me on the cheek, and was out the door.

Normally, these little exchanges find me staring into a mirror, contemplating my next birthday and wondering why I had children if all they can do is remind me that I no longer occupy the lofty high ground granted to the youngest generation.

But as it was this morning, I was feeling fairly happy about my humble little journal – thrilled that I’d started one in the first place all those years ago.

And kept it off the laptop.



Why keep a written garden journal?

In my 2017 book Big Dreams, Small Garden, I delved into a few of the reasons I keep a journal, and why it occupies a place on my desk, not my desktop:

“You can certainly use computer generated lists and documents, but I urge you to keep the journal itself off your computer.  Why?  Because a garden journal is as simple as paper and a pencil, and that simplicity is what will allow you to grab it and head out to the garden with it in your hands.  It’s that simplicity that will allow you to jot something down on a Sunday when you wanted to keep your computer switched off (yes I do this), or save a list of plants you got at a lecture, or roughly sketch a new idea on paper without finding your way through a new software drawing program that drains your will to live long before you ever get anything on the screen.

These things have their place, but so does an old-fashioned garden journal. It’s a garden book – yours.”

Heap what abuse ye may young Gen Z’er – but I maintain that a journal that doesn’t need a battery, allows you to shove papers in random places, make bookmarked notes on little neon flags, attach pictures, receipts and typed plant lists with fingerprint-laden scotch tape; and has a coffee stain from six years ago when you roughly threw journal and mug into the grass to photograph the emerging bluebells on your belly, is nothing short of a beautiful, historical account of a garden.

My journal is not perfect.  The entire year of 2018 is summed up in one guilty paragraph written in January 2019, and there are one too many blank spaces in the columns where I write the location of newly acquired plants.  However, 2018 was a depressingly wet year.  It could be summed up in one paragraph. A depressing one.

And almost all my new acquisitions are moved more than once anyway. The fact that there are annual lists I can scan and notate without incurring further Blue Screen Eye Strain is a miracle.

Cyclamen coum

One of the first plant acquisition entries this year – Cyclamen coum from a rare and unusual plant nursery in Pennsylvania – Gettysburg Gardens.

Documenting moments, and moods

I can read my ever changeable mood in these sentences.  Particularly in poetic ones overlaid with a light ring of red wine – of which I admit there are several – penned during quiet moments in late hours.

What was it Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, as she settled comfortably into the spine-tingling haze of good food and good wine and good friends?

“No need to hurry. No need to sparkle.  No need to be anybody but oneself. We are all going to heaven and Vandyck is of the company – in other words, how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards…”

What might she have written had she sat for one moment in my garden as the night settled upon it and the air was heavy with scent and potential – the luxurious feeling of soft black ink flowing smoothly from pen onto paper?

Not the sort of stuff she would have thumb-typed on a flickering screen while Snapchat interrupted with notifications about Billie Eyelish – that’s for sure.

Old world intertwined with new

I am quite happy to concede that, paired with the daily/weekly log that is Instagram, my humble, written journal takes on greater depth.  I can see from my lists that I planted a ‘Pallida’ witch hazel in 2017, but how wonderful to go back through Instagram while looking at the written reminder to see how much it’s grown since then.  Yes, I could swipe through thousands of personal photos, but Instagram is a photo log – showcasing a representative shot of a certain moment in time.

A personal, private garden journal

I am quite happy to concede that, paired with the daily/weekly log that is Instagram, my humble, written journal takes on greater depth. 

It is wise to be aware that, in the end, Mark Zuckerberg owns that particular photo log. Both of them – for I have two.  He’s only letting me rent them for free at the moment.  When he decides – as no doubt he will – that I’m nothing more than a freeloading exhibitionist and must pony up a wad of cash or face loss of access and social media obscurity; I cannot offer him a hand gesture in return and walk away with it safely tucked under my arm – the way I can with a written account.

And that’s as simple as a binder, some paper, and a uni-ball pen with ink that flows like water.

Perhaps my little Gen-Zer will look at this journal after I am dust, and smile at wicked comments in the margins, or remember the affected way her mother always crossed her sevens and flourished her capital letters.  Perhaps she’ll remember the garden that accompanied those flourishes. Or perhaps she will have forgotten how to read by that point and will vainly look online for the vlog version.

I don’t know; but I do know that this journal, for all its imperfections and inconveniences, is as tool as important to me as my trowel.

And I would not be without it.


signature Marianne Willburn


 A version of this article originally appeared in the Frederick News Post