My Garden Diary

I thought I might show you my Garden Diary today with a background of Garden Diary Musica!  Chair dance!

I’m a big diary keeper, which I know you know.  I have them for all reasons and in all seasons.  They help me keep track of the days, but there was definitely a purpose for the garden diary I kept when we went to England in 2004.  It’s turned out to be quite handy — I refer to it all the time, so I thought I’d show it to you, in case this is something you might like to do.


Here it is.  This narrow little spiral book fit perfectly into my purse and went everywhere I went for the two months we were garden hopping along the country roads of England.  The burn mark?  That is actually from a candle when we returned home — it happened during a dinner party when we were looking at this diary at the table.  So although it’s not pretty, I kind of don’t mind it.  Candlelight burns from a wonderful dinner party are relatively acceptable.

I did not make this diary as pretty as the one I made for you.  This one was just for me, the handwriting is fast, the diary was almost all written while standing up.  I jotted down everything I saw that I loved.  Day after day, as we visited garden after garden (we went to twenty-six of them), I remarked on river walks, wild gardens, woodland gardens and knot gardens, (even Prince Charles’s garden at Highgrove) and wrote down the latin names for flowers and plants.  I wanted to go home having learned something.

If I saw something I fell in love with, I wrote about it, as much information as I could garner.  I would hunt down the grounds-people if I really needed to know the name of something.  I would photograph it too, so I could see it all later.  In our Martha’s Vineyard garden now, we have alpine strawberries, rhododendron, sweet woodruff, white bleeding hearts, golden yew, and lots of other things just because of this little diary and what we learned in the beautiful amazing gardens in England where every single day Joe and I GASPED at the beauty of what we were seeing.

If I saw a big flowering tree, a long walkway, or a homemade fence that I liked, I would write it down, or maybe sketch it in case we wanted to try to do it at home.  When I saw little photos or garden ideas in magazines (I would read them in pubs), I cut them out and put them in my book.

English people are crazy for gardening.  Even where there is no soil in front of a stone house, the house will be covered in flowered baskets.  They have the perfect sky, water, sun, soil for every growing thing.

We learned how important plant shapes are in a beautiful garden ~ something I’d never thought much about.

Right there ↑ … that’s the best advice I ever learned and could pass on when it comes to gardening:  Grow things that are naturally happy in your area.  (Above that National Trust sticker you see in this photo I wrote this notation: “Here I am, lying on the lawn with Joe in the rose garden at Lanhydrock, thinking (because I just came out of their tea shop) how much I love being called ‘sweetheart’ and ‘darling’ — by the sweethearts and darlings who work in the tea shops — makes me think of my grandma.” ♥  

So there is more in this garden diary than gardens — little moments are recorded too, as they happened.

I have practically a library of garden books I’ve collected over the years — old ones with wonderful pictures I found in used bookstores, and new ones too.  But my own little diary has given me the very best information and inspiration of them all, because I already know I love everything in it.

I didn’t just put garden advice in it either, although that’s what 90% of it is — but if I heard a quote or saw something in a house that I liked, I wrote it down or sketched that too.  (I even sketched a farmers market/coffee shop layout we saw just in case someday we wanted to have a farmer’s market/coffee shop — I figured I would be ready 🙂  — it was the perfect shop ~ I had to do it!)

You know my girlfriend Rachel who lives in England, is famous for her brownies, who started out as my pen pal and then we became really dear friends?  Above is a quick sketch I did while standing in her Mom’s bathroom in her house in England.  I loved that bathroom — the house was very old and the bathroom was filled with hints of the years of family farm life … I stood there for a few moments sketching it into my book.  It was so old-fashioned and real.  So now, in our bathroom here on the island, instead of hunting guns, there are fishing poles in the corner next to the sink, and our Wellies, Joe’s big black ones, my smaller colorful ones, are lined up, complete with dried mud on the soles, on the black and white checked linoleum floor under the sink.  This little diary, which I brought home with me, has turned out to be a minefield of inspiration.

Nepeta, a wonderful gorgeous purple plant with sage colored leaves that grows like crazy in our garden … we have it!  I discovered what the birds loved, what would make the bees and butterflies happiest.  Here was a little painting idea I loved — an oil on small unframed canvases, to set on a shelf.   So what did we walk away with — did we use any of this at home?   Oh yes.

We put everything we learned to work.  I learned that flowers aren’t all there are to a garden.  That was a shock.  They are the delicious sweet frosting with sprinkles on top, but the cake matters too!  Before this trip, my gardening life was almost all about flowers ~ like a kid eating the frosting off a cake as the sole provider of his nourishment. But bushes and shrubs are just as important, and when I began to understand how it all came together, they became just as beautiful to me.   They bring the foundation to a garden in a way that a bunch of pansies, even a whole stand of pansies, could never do.  And I found out that the shapes of plants matter, whether they sit like a giant ball or block, climb up a wall, weep, grow skinny and tall like a post, or crawl along the ground.  It’s the contrast that makes things interesting.  (I know what I know now, which is a drop in the bucket, but in a few years, I will know more.  This is a work in progress.) 

I particularly fell in love with the idea of limey yellow-gold and purple colors together.  And texture, that was new to me too; I started noticing how interesting tiny leaves looked next to really big ones, how spiky leaves looked next to soft leaves, how a long green narrow leaf looks next to a short round yellowish one.  I’d never read that in my garden books (or maybe I just didn’t know what they were trying to say).

Here’s another color mix … lime, and purple with spots of orange.   And see the contrast between leaf colors and shapes? I used to wonder why my potted porch plants didn’t look interesting together — but now I know it was because the plants I chose all had the same basic shape, color and size of leaf and flowers.

I learned to see things differently … learned about shape and texture and planned new gardens that reflected it.  I also began to appreciate hedges in a new way.  There are hedgerows all over England (I wrote more about them in our new book); some are wildly untended, draped in wild May flower or spirea, and some are clipped to the nth degree in amazing shapes, into mazes, ball-shapes, pyramids, animals and squares.  Some of them are cut into tall teetering fanciful indescribable shapes with no name at all.  Every house, castle and tearoom has a hedge. But for us and our more modest garden, we found that even the simplest round bush in a loose and flowing flower garden is the perfect thing and makes a wonderful contrast.

Our little clumps of boxwood — they are just green and pretty but they get no discernible flowers at all.

Inspired by England, we planted this long hedge/bird motel down the driveway of our property in California.  There’s a bird motel next to our Post Office on the island too, and for all the years I’ve lived here, through generations of birds really, the music you hear going into the post office (or down our driveway) is bird song —  every spring they’re in there, twittering, skiffering, canucking, kaboodling and chippering, all the things that birds do that make us love them so much.  (. . . all words made up, do not look for meaning).  If you would like to make a bird motel at your house, the earth will thank you. 

I still love my pink sugar frosting.

But now I get some of it from shrubs, that’s beauty bush above (kolkwitzia amabilis).  I hope this post inspires you to get a little book of your own (especially if you are planning a trip where you will be visiting lots of gardens).  Put your book in your purse so that when you see a plant, flower, bush, hedge, rose you like, you can jot it down.  Let it be a book of inspiration; add other things that catch your fancy, scribble a picture, add a photo, sketch a pathway.  Keep the book for one season, and forever you will know what plants to choose for your garden.  (And btw, I turned my garden diary over, started from the other end, and that’s where I wrote about the restaurants we visited and food we loved.)

As I mentioned, the most important thing I learned: unless a plant grows well in our area, in our soil, in our zone, with our weather, I force myself to forget about it.  I try not to torture myself with an unhappy plant that doesn’t want to live here.  No gardenias on Martha’s Vineyard even tho’ they sell them in the nurseries.  I just take a huge breath of that delicious flower fragrance and move on.  I can no longer be tricked.  But it’s still not easy!  I just remind myself that there are many wonderful things that love it here, thrive, and come back every year.

This is the time of year when so many beautiful things are blooming, you’ll fill your book  in no time with notes and inspiration for your next year’s garden, even when driving around your own neighborhood.  Or, maybe you’ll plan the garden of your dreams, the one you hope to have someday.  Nothing happens unless first we dream . . . so dream on girlfriends. Until we meet again . . . XOXO

40 Responses to My Garden Diary

  1. Sweet Sue says:

    I just noticed that you have posted a new blog called “My Garden Diary!” How charming and how delightful! I read through it saving photos and taking notes ….you are so organized and have soooooooo many fantastic ideas! Now I know how you do it ….you take notes and journal just about everywhere you go….I can even see you having your lunch while looking at one of your favorite magazines and with notepad and pen in hand taking notes! 🙂 I love to leisurely look at particular magazines as well…Coastal Living is one of my favorites among others……I just look through it the first time and then take notes and/or clip ideas the 2nd time through…..and then if it is not too “cut-up” donate it to one of my doctor’s offices for others to enjoy! Thanks for sharing your Garden Diary…..just loved it and when I have time again soon will go through it once more to make sure I have gleaned all that I find beautiful and useful. Blessings to you dear Susan!

  2. joanne mckay says:

    I’ve heard of you….but only just now have I read your blog!! I read your book ,[ the one about England, can’t remember the name right now , my menopause is kicking in!], I LOVED it!! I laughed[you remind me of me] your sense of humour is great, I love your creativeness, its amazing! I love your garden book, your collections! I would love to start a blog….I’ll have to get my kids to teach me!!HaHa You are inspiring!!!!!!! I have a bunch of quilting friends that I’m going to tell how amazing your blog is…..I love you already and don’t really know you!! I’ll have to buy some more of your books!

    • sbranch says:

      How nice to meet you Joanne! I have a special surprise for quilters I’ll have on the blog soon, just fyi — and thank you!

  3. Mamey Brown says:

    Love the Garden Diary!! I would like to share a story with you: My Dad liked to grow and plant flowers back in the 80’s-90’s and he kept a journal. We had no idea he was doing it. He would plant his seeds indoors in the middle of winter. He put them under his homemade light table, he built a cold frame outside, and when ready, he planted them in the yard. He kept track of all of the progress, etc, etc. etc…..I have found it so interesting to read this journal every so often. His sense of humor and his wiseguy remarks are in that journal. I must admit, my fav parts were when he would throw in tidbits wishing me a Happy Birthday on March 28th. Or saying “Happy Easter” and what my mom cooked that year. I crack up reading it and eventually my eyes fill and spill over at times. My dad passed in 2000. My mom; knowing I’m the centimental one, gave me his journal. When I find myself missing him, I pick up that silly journal and it ALWAYS makes me feel better. Sooo, when my husband and I bought our first house, I wanted to plant veges. So I continued in his journal with our garden and it’s progress. I even mapped out where I placed certain veges so I could rotate them around year after year. It’s fun to have both of our handwriting in this journal. I try to add tidbits like he did so whoever reads it after I’m gone can get a chuckle as well…..I’m sorry this is so long. But I can’t stress enough how important journaling is….Even the simpliest of entries will make someone’s day. Putting a smile on someone’s face after we are gone is what a true legacy should be about. ANYWAYS….. When and where can I purchase your garden journal. I don’t see it in your shop. 🙂

  4. The diary is very pretty indeed, I am trying not to use I now that I read it in your letter writing article! I love that you love England and have such a love affair with so many things about my country. I started a garden diary just recently but to record how my very small patch at the front of my house is improving. Just today I bought a Corduline and I must take a photo and write a few lines about it.x

    • sbranch says:

      A quote I love and I think must apply to all of England: Earth here is so kind, just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest. Have fun Louise!

  5. Fan in California says:

    I’m not good about writing things down but my nephew who lives in Portland likes to have updates of the state of my garden so I have a photo journal, if you will, going.

    I know for sure three things: I like as many flowers as possible; I want the concrete walkways (necessary for my handicapped son) to be edged/softened by plants as much as possible; and I want the walls of the house and our property hidden as much as possible by vines and shrubs. Our climbing roses have hedged and they are our bird motels. We have seen sparrows to Cooper’s Hawks in our backyard and have Salvia outside our front window that attracts hummingbirds — despite their violet/blue color; we can sit on our couch and watch them buzzing around.

    You’ve probably explained before but why is your garden fenced?

    Thanks for sharing all your inspirations/photos!!

    • sbranch says:

      The inside of the picket-fence garden has lots of veggies in it … it changes every year, it can be quite a little mess in there, so I put in the fence to calm down the tangled view from my kitchen window. But that’s not the real reason, it’s really just my dream of having a picket fence with a garden gate. I’ve always loved them. Plus it gives me something to lean the foxgloves and the glads on. Something for the clematis to climb on. Love the sound of your garden!

  6. Rose Wood says:

    Oh I just found this garden journal of yours. I have been a gardener for many years and go to England often. I loved reading through it. Thank you so much for sharing delightful things so often with others.

  7. Ann Jane Koerber says:

    I grew up in a city apartment with no yard; however, throughout the city and on my walk to school there were big old homes with beautiful flowers……I loved them! During the summer at the end of 5th grade our assignment was to do a wildflower project. I was hooked that summer on wildflowers! HOOKED! I absolutely loved finding them, identifying them, pressing them and putting them in a 3-ring binder for display. Wherever we went, for a ride, to a park, to Maine to visit my Nana…….I looked for different wildflowers…..my favorite to this day is Queen Ann’s Lace. The Lady Slipper is amazing, but difficult to find……and violets, aren’t they wonderful? (our youngest granddaughter’s name is Violet!) I still, 55 years later, absolutely love wildflowers. I have tried my hand with gardening and do a pretty good job, but not like you, dear Susan. Again, I’ve found another SB blog that truly inspires me to continue doing what I love. Love your little garden journal – thank you for sharing! xoxo

    • sbranch says:

      We have Lady Slippers in the woods here in the spring — but we’re encouraged never to pick them. They are so interesting . . . I painted one for my Summer Book. Violets in the lawn, love them! Wildflowers are such a gift aren’t they, just popping up like little presents!

  8. Margot in Virginia Beach says:

    I love your little garden journal, and I miss those slim notebooks you had made. I should use mine for a permanent theme, as I don’t want to rip out any pages. I feel sad that winter is coming and I have to drag in some of the potted plants. I was able to plant pansies yesterday before our cold. I found one called frilly pansy. I wished they had more of that one.
    While in CA I got the notion to buy an amaryllis and put it into the pot my grandmother used with her’s.

    Do you have snow today?

    • Margot in Virginia Beach says:

      I have to tell you something that I watched on TV tonight. Sally Field’s 10th great grandfather is William Bradford! He came from Austerfield (sp?), England. Orphaned as a child he found comfort in the church. I think you know that he came over on the Mayflower, but did you know that on the first Thanksgiving of 1621 he was at the head of the table!!! He was the governor of Plymouth Colony.

      • sbranch says:

        Yes, we even went to his grave this fall . . . left a little bouquet of flowers from our garden.

        • margot in Virginia Beach says:

          Have you been to that part of England?
          Enjoy the beach walk while you can. We heard the Farmer’s Almanac said Winter will start strong, but end mild. Hopefully so, better for planting in Spring.

          • sbranch says:

            Yes, it’s in York! His house is still there; we’ll go next time. We’re enjoying every moment, thank you Margot.

    • sbranch says:

      No snow for us as we are visiting in California, we are just about to go for our walk on the beach!

      • margot in Virginia Beach says:

        I guess I thought that you were heading back for some reason. So do you think that you would make these skinny spirals again. I really like the one I have, and one I have that is a little bigger with hats on it.

        I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving.

  9. Margot ~~~ Virginia Beach says:

    No – the notebooks that you used for your garden diary. Will you make more??? I really liked mine.

    Thanks for the cookie jar!!!

  10. Faye Fern says:

    You so inspire me. You’re just the bees knees!

  11. Jan Martin says:

    loved reading your garden blog and yes, please create a garden journal for all us little gardeners. I have what I call a “wee garden”, a typical small California yard, but I have stuffed it with pretties! There are over 30 rose bushes, azaleas! Hydrangeas, so many colorful perennials! It is my treasure!

  12. Carol from Long Islalnd says:

    My garden was started 30 years ago. Martha Stewart inspired me at the time. Now, you do, Susan. I will never stop gardening. My girlfriends are going to the Lake district in England over the summer. I gave one of them your book, “A fine Romance”, to read….she loved it! This blog is the best blog ever. Thank you, Carol from Long Island

  13. maybelle Eley says:

    Hi Susan! I am a journal writer want to be !
    I have so many pretty journals but there empty
    Because I freeze up! Any advice??? You are my
    All time favorite!!!!! Ohhhh, maybe some day
    A how to book or work shop ?
    Thank you for all the joy from your sweet art
    And words!! Maybelle

    • sbranch says:

      Don’t be afraid, just pretend you are writing to a friend and tell them what is going on. It’s just for you, you can say anything. But just pick some little thing you liked in your day and talk about that. It gets easier.

  14. Carol says:

    Reading this was a perfect end to a HOT SoCal day. I truly felt transported. Your writing about a horsechestnut tree brought up a quote from Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth went with her aunt and uncle to Pemberly. Like everything you do, this is just delightful and I feel so blessed. Thank you!

  15. debra says:

    I live this. A Gardening Diary. Very inspiring.

  16. Donna C says:

    It’s one of those sleepless nights so here I am reading your garden journal and all the comments and loving it….very inspiring.

  17. Mary Ann says:

    sbranch says:
    May 29, 2014 at 7:17 am
    I haven’t made one yet, I should! What you are making is truly priceless!

    This is what you posted above. I know how busy you are have been and continue to be. Have you thought about doing some more of these little note books? I am sure you will have all your girlfriends wanting to purchase these little note books.
    Thanks as always for providing us with your gift of art and creation.

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