GARDENING: Top Ten Tools for Garden Planning- "Old School" to New Apps!

Winter is coughing up its last gasps as it rolls some "phlem-y" storms of mixed-up thunder, rain, sleet, and snow through the Midwest these past few weeks. We, gardeners, laugh at these sad attempts to thwart our springtime optimism! We hear the birds tweeting in the morning, we have noticed the subtle longer days and can just feel it in our gardeners' bones, spring is around the corner. Well, don't get caught unprepared. This is the perfect time to dust off your garden books and get inspired! Now is the time to plan away! A plan not only will produce a prettier, sustained garden. But you can focus your time, money and energy when you are at the gardening center. A vetted plant wish list with acceptable backups is key. That way you won't get distracted or end up buying too much or the wrong plants. (Of course, if you are like me, you will get distracted anyway and splurge on something pretty you were not expecting. That's the fun of it. But without a plan, you will spend a whole lot more money than you should!)

There are many great tools I have used and plan to use to help me plan my garden. Some are kind of old school and using PAPER and a PENCIL. But with the onset of mobile apps and technology in general, there are very powerful, helpful and inexpensive digital tools to make planning fun and easy. Here are my top ten tools, from one extreme to the other. Please join the conversation and share what has worked for you.

Oh and by the way, our friends at have a comprehensive post on vegetable gardening, so if vegetables need to make it into your garden planning, you may want to do some extra research with this post, vegetable gardening for beginners.

Happy planning...and planting!
1: The Garden Planner Kit Booklet

This is a book I bought when I was just starting out in gardening. It comes with plant stickers, pencils and graph paper, and takes a very architectural approach to planning your garden. It is a little harder to visualize color and height with this tool, but one thing you will get is a mathmatically accurate plan...something I ALWAYS MESS UP! I usually don't allow the right amount of space for my plants, either over crowding in a spot or not buying enough. It is a good tool for beginners. It's tactile and little old school, and that's OK considering you are just learning. I think a tactile approach is the best way to learn.

2: Better Homes and Gardens FREE Downloadable/Printable Garden Plans 

There is a wealth of plans online that BHG is giving for FREE and they are constantly updating. They can be viewed online as pdfs, or you can download and print them to make notes. These plans are great for two reasons. They are organized based on style, function or light, and you can change these to fit your size plot. But the other thing they do is give you a replacement plant list in the back of the plan. I always go to the store and inevitably, I can't find 30% of what I planned on from my "fancy-pants" books and magazines. Then I spend more time reading tags, measuring and reworking plans at the store on the fly trying to find replacements. These plans keep that in mind allowing you to substitute easy to find plants that work in the plan you chose. Thank you BHG!

3: Better Homes and Gardens Free Online Plan-A-Garden Tool

A somewhat new tool from BHG is a Plan-A-Garden tool. Some of the users complained the tool did not have enough plants, trees and shrubs to pick from. But again, if you are just starting out, this seems to be a great tool online for free! People found it easy to use, and you can save your plans online. My guess is BHG is going to continue to grow and expand the database as they develop it. I think for's pretty cool stuff.

4: Better Homes and Garden Free Online Garden Journal/Notebook

 I don't mean to be raving about BHG, but they really have made huge strides in owning the garden space as a major go-to resource online. If it's there, why not use it!? Another nice tool is the garden journal they developed online. You create your account and keep notes, plans and purchases within your profile. I prefer to be more old school with my garden journal (as you'll see)..collecting my tags and bits of paper and notes. I like to grab it and walk around the garden writing notes when I feel like's part of my experience. But some of you "younglings" may really like to keep your garden activity online. Either way, journaling and keeping your planning in one place is really important for a successful garden. So find a style that works for you. This online tool may be your ticket.

5: Free Online "Social Network" Garden tool from Garden Puzzle

Speaking of the Gen Y approach to gardening, here is a place that takes a Facebook approach and mixes garden planning with social networking...all for free! You can create an account and profile, upload pictures of your house, garden or landscape. Then build your ideas right on the picture. You can see things in their real environment and heights. Garden Puzzle will give you tips on what you should plant based on soil and climate, and you can see what your choices will look like based on seasons. You can upload and share your creations with other members in the community. Oh, and did I mention IT'S FREE?

6: Plain old printed photos and tracing paper

Completely opposite from the previous tool, this is just as important and can even be used in tandem with the more digital stuff. I always take pictures of my garden throughout the year as things come up and die back. It is a nice way to keep track of what is where, what last minute things you planted and where your holes are. You can use these photos in some of the tools I am sharing with you here. But you can also just simply print the photos out and with some paper or tracing paper on top, write notes of choices or changes you wish to make. You can just do that, or you can then take your notes and use some of the more visual/digital tools to see more vividly how things will look. But with the dawn of the digital camera, pictures of your garden is a must for planning and optimizing.

7: "The Garden Keeper" Journal or a simple notebook with inside cover pocket

This journal is the most amazing gift I ever received, and I use it a ton. It is a small binder with tabs, complete with sleeves and places to organize plant tags, calendars, graph paper, notes, to do lists per season, plant selection lists based on height, color or light. Even a trouble shooting guide. I am sorry to say, I could not find it anywhere online to tell you where to buy it, it seems to be discontinued. However, you don't need a fancy organizer like this to keep all your thoughts and notes in one place. You just need a notebook with tabs and a few pockets somewhere in there to hold tags, notes and plans, and you are all set.

8: Easy Bloom Garden Sensor

The gadget of all garden gadgets! I have posted a review on this last year at ( I am not sure you can use this sensor this early in the season. But if you have a specific area you don't know what to do with, as things warm up, pop this little gadget in the ground and wait 24 hours. After that, pop it in your computer by using it's USB connector, and it will give you a list of plant recommendations based on that area keeping in mind moisture, light, soil, etc. I have used this to troubleshoot certain areas in my beds that have dying plants for no good reason. I think it can also help in preplanning what will work in those tough areas, too.

9: Books, Magazines and Binder of old clipped articles

Again, an "old school" activity...but nothing gets you passed the winter doldrums than curling up with some gardening books or magazines and a cup of tea to get the wheels turning. Many books will give you real gardens to get inspired from with plans and plant lists right next to them. The only issue I have had doing this is that often times, these gardens are very aspirational...and so are the plant choices. As I mentioned before, I sometimes can't find some of these varietals, and if I do, they cost a pretty penny because they are specialty. It is nice to have one or two of these in a bed, but having a whole bed like that can get very costly. Either way, it is a nice way to get inspired and to see what other amazing gardeners have done as a starting point.

Another tool that I have developed over the years is an organized binder of interesting articles and tips from magazines. I bought tabs from an office store to keep topics organized, and I only clip out stuff from magazines that is important to me and my zone. That way, I can recycle the rest of the magazine. It is a great way to not get overrun with garden magazines through the years, and you can easily find information that you are looking for.

10: Digital apps, ( Gardener's Buddy, Eden Garden Design, and Garden Buddy

The brave new world of apps is here. And if any of you have a mobile device, you have been in the rabbit hole of app-land. And you can attest to the fact that not all apps are good. In fact, many of them are buggy and not helpful. The sea of gardening apps is no different, however, there are some inexpensive gems to take a look at that are helpful.

Gardener's Buddy is an app that allows you to upload your sketches of your garden plans, and write and keep notes on it in a chronological format. So it is like a digital gardening journal!

Eden Garden Design allows you to upload a picture of your garden and plan right on top of it to visually see what you are designing. Their data base is searchable by light, zone, color, etc and each plant entry has a wiki link to delve further. For the price, this looks pretty spanky...I have to say.

Garden Buddy (not to be confused with Gardener's Buddy) is like a gardening calculator. Not sure how much sod, fertilizer or mulch to buy? Input your info and it will give you some answers. Pretty sweet for my math-challenged brain!



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