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  • Penn Parmenter

It’s All in the Book

By Penn Parmenter:

Keeping one garden book per year has been a life-saver for me. In a world where we use our phones for everything an actual book filled with garden notes satisfies in so many ways.

 Garden Book - Photos: Penn Parmenter
Garden Book - Photos: Penn Parmenter

I make maps of every bed planted along with the date and who helped me. This helps tremendously with crop rotations and variety names. (You know those markers are going to blow away or fade under the mulch.) I refer to past books to see what I planted where and when. I also document my companion planting; looking back on past combinations gives me inspiration.

When I wonder why the garlic isn’t up, I check the book. “Oh shoot, we didn’t plant until the end of November – it’s gonna need another minute.”

I make lists of seed that I need, what I wish to grow, and notes like, ‘Don’t forget to plant nasturtiums with the squash’.

And I make a list of what’s growing in my wooden nursery flats too in case the markers disappear. This has saved me many times.

When we plant many types of squash, I often make the map with a head-lamp on as evening is coming down. And with so many tomatoes to keep track of, a map of the bed is crucial to knowing who is who and how they fared – who ripened first, who didn’t make it or what replaced it.

When scouting for seed in the wild I make notes about where I see plants blooming, which can include mile markers or landmarks in the Forest: “Saw Penstemon brandegei right after the big rock in mushroom alley.” Only I know what that means when I go back later for seed. Sometimes it says, “MM 29, HWY 67, rock cut, west side.” I know exactly where that is.

I photograph almost everything I grow. When it comes to tomatoes there are many dated pages entitled “Photo Shoot”. Listed in order are tomato variety names. Later I might go back into photos and name the tomatoes for future reference, but now I’ve got them in my book and since photos have dates on them, it’s an easy system.

My son, who knows I am bereft without my yearly garden book, gave me a beautiful new leather-bound, hand-made journal for Christmas. I was so scared I’d lost it recently that I kissed and hugged it when it turned up. Now if I make a garden shopping list I take a picture with my phone and leave the book at home. I’ve learned not to take it anywhere except when scouting.

I sometimes draw pictures in it and describe the place, the weather - and possibly the feeling.

I include contact info for the person I met at a garden event or an address of someone I promised to send seed to. I also include the vet, the wood guy, and the hay guy. This may be old school but the Cloud isn’t going to keep it from me when the power goes out or there is no signal in the mountains.

While documenting the weather in Colorado can be a fool’s errand, I do list the conditions while planting in. This helps later when I am assessing germination speeds, or when I’m reminded to plant lettuce seed in the early mornings or during golden hour so the ever-lovin’ spring wind doesn’t blow them right out of my hand.

When the smoke from spring wildfires is bad enough to wear a mask, I document it to keep an eye on the health and vigor of that particular planting.

I will occasionally give myself a pep talk in the book. I might write, “GET THE TOMATOES PLANTED PENN – WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!” If my boy helps me with a planting, I might wax poetic about how lucky I am.

Last year was tough. The wind didn’t stop blowing until the end of June and the nights continued to dip into the 30’s. I felt emotionally overloaded and the late start threw me off my game. We’re supposed to be experts at high-altitude gardening but 2022 whupped my butt, and while we have had amazing successes throughout these 32 years, last year took the wind out of my sails.

But endless optimism is my nature, so when a mysterious leaf curl arrived on my tomato trials and there was no obvious explanation, I researched, asked questions, troubleshot with Cord, yet came up with almost nothing that made sense. My innate knowledge and assessment of the situation was straight from the gut. I landed on toxic smoke from wildfires burning so many houses. I talked to people all over the state who were experiencing the same thing and was determined to figure it out myself and do what I always do – outgrow the problem.

In my mind's eye I saw rivers of smoke settling here and there. My gut kept saying that the randomness of it was the reason it didn’t happen to everybody or on every plant. Wind patterns, temperatures, irregular watering, toxic smoke could have all contributed. Will it return this year? Or will we be all shiny and new? How can I be the tomato lady and have an unexplained thing happen to my tomatoes? It never completely righted itself but the tomatoes fruited anyway. All of this is in my garden book.

I started using an actual book in 2013 and I’m continually amazed at how helpful this one simple thing can be. It is a record of my life and my garden life, and it holds detailed information that would be easy to forget. Not to mention that if there are people in your life who will carry on with your garden after you can’t anymore, a book like this will be a treasure for years to come.

Penn & Cord Parmenter garden and grow food and seed near Westcliffe. Both are regional high-altitude gardening instructors and the founders of Smart Greenhouses LLC and Miss Penn’s Mountain Seeds. Visit



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