Tracking data and planning is sometimes more fun than doing, watching plans work out is even better; I wonder if I should had been a project manager. Thinking this way with the allotment does a number of things, you plan how you think things will turn out over the year, you track how it does and the current state, you record so you have the data to work off of next time. You have all that, which means you know when you are ignoring it all and just going with what happens. The big point is, you know all that, you know what you are expecting and where everything is – in the future and in the past. A phrase that is used way too much in office environments, knowing about “lessons learnt” and actually doing something with them (not so much like a real office environment then!)
I have tried planning planting over 12 months and not managed too well on a week-by-week basis. Nature is a lot less predictable and controllable than a software development project, for example – plus I get bored after a while. This doesn’t mean I don’t plan, I just don’t plan down to set days or weeks, just month by month, that probably fits allotment growing better where the tolerance is a lot more than…. a software development project.
I use a software solution for all this. I have tried a note book but I can’t read my own writing at times so it makes it a bit hard looking back. I could use a spreadsheet for planning, and have done that at times. I have to remember to check it each month though and really it is just replicating what I have in books. I can take a book off the shelf each month and check what I need to do just as well as opening a spreadsheet.
There are online planning tools which allow you to visualise your plot each month, Veg Plotter is one of them, it is quite fun going month by month virtually planting things and seeing where and how they will grow, what will grow next. It is a pity then that when it came to it I quickly didn’t keep to the plan, or the plan didn’t quite match reality. The biggest problem in visualising is that real life is not as neat, there is no room in the software to say how you have planted most of the carrots in one place, but you have sowed a bit more in a gap that has appeared before nothing germinated from another crop. A lot of remembering to keep the plan match reality, a bit over the top at times for me – if you miss a week of updates out then it is a lot of work to catch up and the fun goes.
It did do one thing that I have wanted, and that was showing me when gaps might appear following a harvest and so what you might want to plant next. It doesn’t allow you to plant things out of session, although it does allow you to override that for times when you are planting undercover.
When I was doing square foot gardening I found planning was essential and part of what SFG is all about, getting the most out of a small space means complete organisation and control. I planned all this in a spreadsheet, doing much of what Veg Plotter does but eight years previous in 2010 when such online tools were not the norm.
For this, I had a tab for logging what was planted in each square, how much I could put in each square, when it was planted, and matched expected germination and harvesting time against actual. It was then meant to automatically update a relevant month tab where it had a basic drawing of the squares for each week, with the relevant crop and showed as brown until germination, then green up until harvesting – it then went brown again and could show me it would be time to sow something else in the square.
This had the problem of being extra organised, which is part of SFG I think, but maybe a bit too much organising constantly. I want things planned, but not as much, it feels like my day job. I had plans to automate the spreadsheet so the log tab would automatically update the relevant squares for the correct week and month, but again it felt too much like my day job. It would had been good though…
I want something to tell me, to prompt me when I’m not expecting it. I am happy to spend some evenings planning, but I don’t then want to turn it into a full project plan that needs constant updating and re-planning (again, day job…). I have used Toodledo for years as a general todo list, I have set up a number of complex filters and sorting so that a lot of things for everyday take care of themselves. It is sorted in order of importance and the software decides what is important by a number of attributes such as date, priority, status etc… This means a task does not show on the list until it is ready to do so, when a target date is getting near maybe, it then goes up the importance list accordingly. It works well, I thought I would see about using it to replicate allotment jobs each year (taken from the book) plus one off tasks that you can just add and forget about, set a date for your next allotment visit and it will magically appear on that day.
You might think this has been a lot of work to setup, and it is true there has been a whole load of thought into making something that is all set up to run itself. Filters are dynamic so it is is January it will show me all tasks for the next 30 days, I have a filter to show me tasks in the next 30-60 days (ie, the following month). I have got all the suggested dates from the allotment month-by-month book, if it says January for planting a particular plant then i put it in to complete by the end of the month. It appears on the list, getting nearer the top as the month goes on, if I don’t do it then it remains on the list (normally quite near the top) for the next month, and the next, until I set it as done. If I know I go to the allotment on Saturdays then all during the week I can add jobs with Saturday as the date, when the time comes everything is near the top.
A lot of initial work, a bit over the top, but it works well with little maintenance now it is set up. There is a phone app so I can add things during the week and tick them off at the weekend. If I choose to miss a date, it’s not a problem as it just remains on the list until I do it, or don’t do it but tick it anyway to remove it from the list until next time. Using repeated activities I have items set up weekly, monthly, yearly.
It works for me at work, it makes sense that it works for me here too.
Tracking & Recording
Planning is one thing, but more important at times is tracking and recording, nothing what is what and where it is. I have used a notebook to record what I have done for each plant on each visit, but my handwriting is not good. Instead, I try to use a spreadsheet, I only started it the other month but I did something similar in 2002 when I had an allotment and it has made interesting reading recently.
A tab per year (that’s the plan), a row per planting, a column for each month, and then as much or as little text for each as I do things or things happen. Just rough notes, I’m not writing a life story, just the bits I need and think are worth knowing. It is a bit of a misuse of spreadsheet technology, I could had used a Word file or a text file, but the grid layout is useful and joins a long list of spreadsheet misuse within business and home.
I could had used the many journaling software solutions offline and online, but technology has such a short lifespan at times. A great system today disappears with all your data, sometimes without warning or ways to export your data. I only need to say “My Space” or “Friends Reunited”, who would have thought they would be so short lived. I had similar worries about Toodledo, and still do a bit, although it has been around for 10 years or so, it has an export function, I’m happy with that for the time being.
What about knowing how things are right now, can I remember all the plants and their current state? I probably can, and even if I can’t then it’s not a problem as I can remember when I visit the plot. This next part is maybe a bit too far, although I do think it’s not a bad idea. For normal people, maybe this is one part which on its own might be handy without going over the top and too geeky by having everything together.
The use of Trello boards is used throughout business these days, the world “Trello” has become a thing instead of a name for a piece of software. These boards get misused in business as much as spreadsheets do, but the reason why is because you can mould it to work anyway you want for your immediate need, that itself is a good thing.
Here we have column for each state of a crop, with the freedom to add and remove extra columns as I need (although at the moment these are working ok for me). This style of planning and tracking, a “Kanban” board is used (and misused) a lot in business, an idea devised by Toyota to improve efficiency, “just in time” working and all that. For me, it visualises the current state of everything on the plot. It all runs from left to right, starting with what is sowed, to what is growing, to what is harvesting. If a plant is none of the above then it is not shown on the board, which means it is no longer in the ground and on the plot.
The screenshot above shows most things are either growing or harvesting, just one plant growing in seed pots which is a last lot of radish before the days get too short and cold. I am expecting to add a further column for plants growing under cover/fleece. You can add colours and labels, I haven’t done it so much at the moment but have colour coded plants growing at home and not the plot. You could have a colour to show which plants are in the greenhouse, for example.
Planning, tracking, visualising…. it is all fun but it shouldn’t control and run your plot. instead it should work around the plot and what you are doing on it. It has to be flexible to model the real world instead of the real world trying to match something designed on paper. Nature and growing doesn’t always care what a spreadsheet says it should be doing….
Mainly, tracking of what is going on and when it mostly done via keeping a diary/blog. This is something gardeners have done for many years. Hopefully all the many blogs will have the same longevity as the gardener’s log books from the last hundred years plus.