Using free web services to plan and coordinate a garden

Posted on April 29, 2012

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For all the flack companies like Google get for their omnipresence throughout the world wide web, they do provide Internet users with free services that can make garden planning and task coordination far more effective than some of the other, more tradition means of data transmission. In the past few years, I’ve found that using web technologies such as Google Docs (now known as Google Drive) can truly help streamline communication between community garden educators and facilitators. But even if you are gardening solo in your backyard, you may find that utilizing these web services is helpful (and perhaps rewarding) in your effort to maintain a productive plot.

To better coordinate garden tasks and events this season at Waltham Fields, I have constructed two shared documents: an aerial “drawing” of the garden and a multipurpose spreadsheet.

2012 Learning Garden: aerial viewThis diagram was created using the drawing document option in Google Docs. It contains basic shapes to represent garden beds and structures, call-outs, arrows, and color-coding to describe or indicate particular garden characteristics, and a primitive compass rose to ensure correct garden orientation. It is a work in progress, but I have already found it to be extremely helpful in more clearly communicating where work needs to be done when I am incapable of being at the farm to provide direct instruction.

LG rhubarb plantThe diagram is also helpful in showing anticipated changes to the garden layout. Colored arrows used to represent a lonely but thriving rhubarb plant and the garden’s black and red raspberry canes show the intended expansion of these crops, while a double-headed yellow arrow in the top-right corner of the map expresses the need for adequate clearance around our three-bin compost structure when the “living” bean and flower fence is erected. Although you don’t see it here, I’ve entitled this doc the spring / early-summer garden; I will make a copy of this doc, rename it the late-summer / fall garden, and change relevant details and map coding as needed for the second half of the growing season.

The spreadsheet doc I created contains several tabs: a greenhouse and field schedule, a weekly task list, and a seed inventory.

2012 planting scheduleThe greenhouse and field tabs allow me to record what, when, where, and how much we plant. I’ve decided that I’m going to add a “days to maturity (DTM)” or an expected date of maturity column for each week in addition to creating a separate tab for actual harvest dates and amounts. I’m considering completely flip-flopping the format of these two tabs so that the document scrolls downward as the season progresses (it currently scrolls to the right as time goes on).

2012 weekly task listThe weekly task list is incredibly helpful to me when prioritizing garden chores, especially at the beginning of the season when it seems like there is so much to be done! Because all of my information is in one doc, it’s easy to switch from tab to tab and see what jobs need to be added to the sheet; if priorities change, tasks can easily be cut and pasted into new cells within the same week or further into the future. Again, to ensure strong communication between garden staff, this section has a column in which the user must indicate if said task has been completed and when it was completed; this is also where any relevant notes concerning a particular task can be written.

2012 seed inventoryThe seed inventory tab, much like the rest of the doc, is far from complete and will be edited throughout the season. Here I’ve recorded our current seed supplies, including seeds purchased for the 2010-2012 growing seasons; all older seeds have been removed from my physical seed storage bin and have not been included in the written inventory as they will likely be used for germination rate experiments or craft projects. I’ve included details such as crop name, supplier name, approximate amount in stock, days to maturity, plant height, and life cycle, as well as the family, order, and genus of each specific crop. I’m definitely going to better organize this tab so that crops are more logically grouped (they are currently in no particular order). But I think it’s more important that I finish my master’s degree program first. :)

So what’s the point of doing all this recordkeeping? It’s hard to critically analyze anything unless you have data, whether quantitative or qualitative; this rather basic means of planning and monitoring will allow for a more effective evaluation of projects and subsequent recognition of best practices towards the end of the growing season. If there is any truth to the concept “you only get what you give,” I expect much valuable insight through this approach to garden maintenance.

It goes without saying that there are plenty of other, similar web services available for this type of planning and monitoring. I decided to utilize Google Docs because so many people, myself included, already use Google as their main online communication service provider; it just makes sense to keep it all in the family when possible. Furthermore, Google Docs, unlike back-and-forth emails or even a service such as Dropbox, allows for live, multi-user editing, which better ensures that the entire education staff will be on the same page when it comes to bed preparation, seeding, transplanting, watering, and harvesting. And because the service is free to any and all, issues concerning accessibility are substantially reduced.

What web technologies have you found helpful in your garden planning or programming? Did you find that some work better than others? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below.

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