How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook

If the name Susan Tomlinson is familiar to you, it might be because you read her great blog, The Bike Garden. Susan arranged for me to have a review copy of her fab book last year and I'm feeling a little guilty it's taken me so long to write my review.

I wish I'd had a copy of this a few years back when I started my Designing with Plants course with KLC. The course requires quite a bit of drawing, particularly for the 50 plant profiles element, showing how each chosen plant plus 3 selected companions fit together. I bought a couple of botanical illustration books at the time as I haven't done much in the way of artwork since I was 14, but found them to be way above the level I needed and gave up the course soon after.

Whilst Susan's book is aimed at nature journaling, the guidance within is equally suited to someone wanting to keep a visual diary of their garden, garden visits, wildflowers or whatever takes a gardener's fancy. We all take many photos to accompany our blog posts, but there's something about sitting down with a notebook, a pencil and either paint or crayons (or even those wonderful watercolour crayons) which really helps you to see.

Susan has plenty of sound advice on the kind of kit to put together and I've found it useful to have added a hand lens to my bag, so I can really look at plant details. There then follows a chapter on basic drawing skills, which looks at the shapes found in nature, putting these together, then adding shade, tone and colour to the drawing.

I was familiar with these principles from my previous purchases, but what elevates this book above those is that Susan then shows how these basic skills are actually applied in the field notebook context. This is much better for quickly gaining an impression of a place or a plant than a polished botanical drawing achieves. For anyone who still aspires to botanical artistry, this is also a useful step to master and is missing from the books I have in my collection. It's also much more achievable!

I also like the many step-by-step practical exercises Susan has devised for the reader to gain confidence and the many real examples shown from her students' field notebooks. Some of these also show Susan's comments to her students, so it feels like she's there guiding you through the whole process.

All in all this book has a much more practical and achievable feel to it, than the others I've tried. I've even used the skills I've acquired during some of the talks I've attended (such as Nigel Dunnett's Rain Gardens course recently) to quickly sketch a slide or photograph shown. However, I'm keeping my notebook to myself for a little while longer - I still need to practice a bit more ;)

How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook has 'translated' well to this side of the pond and I'm pleased to see it's now available here in the UK ;)


  1. a lovely addition to the wish list!

  2. This sounds wonderful! I googled the book and found I can pick up a copy at Thank you for the recommendation!

  3. Petoskystone - it sure is!

    Linda - so glad you found it. I see the Stateside Amazon has used the Look Inside feature, which allows you not just take my word for it and to also see for yourself if this is the book for you :)

  4. Makes for a WIN WIN deal!!

  5. I shall have to look that up - I've been keeping lists of the birds in my agraden - and as you know, first butterfly yesterday. Wonderful bullfinch in the lanes the other day - is there any better bird in spring?

  6. What a wonderful review! Thank you very much. :-D

    I'm so glad to hear about your year-long experience, too. I've wondered how it has worked out for people who are not in my classes, so that feedback is very helpful to me.

  7. Mark - bullfinches sadly are an infrequent visitor here, but I see them regularly at Threadspider's at the top of the hill. We have a pair of goldcrests building a nest in the conifer just a few feet from the patio door - that's pretty special too :)

    Susan - it's a pleasure, A late review but at least I can show it stays useful over the year :)

  8. Love that people are being encouraged to do this!
    Can't see myself doing it tho. Guess I do enough drawing - bad case of draughtsman's back at the mo! So give me my pocket digital every time!

  9. Thanks for bringing the title to my attention VP ~ sound the perfect present for a dear friend.

  10. Robert - I guess you have more than enough knowledge/experience already!

    Anna - that's great!


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