How to Make Your Own Field Guide

Two pages from a homemade field guide, for echinicea and woolly mullein

In this article you'll learn how to make a field guide, and we'll explore its importance as a companion for plant exploration and education. 

Whether you're exploring your own backyard, meandering through local parks, or venturing into nearby fields, the opportunity to connect with nature is boundless. A DIY field guide is a personalized tool crafted by your own hands and tailored to your own interests. 

Use your DIY field guide to locate medicinal herbs or to identify wildflowers that grow near you. It's your personalized gateway to a deeper relationship with the plants in your area. 

How to make a customized field guide

When we first moved to our 40-acre property in 2004, I was thrilled to find so many useful plants and medicinal herbs growing wild in our pasture and nearby fields. 

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I'd snap a picture with my phone and research the plant when I got back home, and maybe make a note or two about its uses on a random piece of paper. I'd tuck away its location and all sorts of information about it in my brain.

Later, if I needed a certain plant or herb, I could remember approximately where it had been and then I could go look for it and bring home what I needed.

Eventually there were so many "entries" in my brain that I couldn't remember all the information, much less where I'd seen that plant last summer. 

So I designed a field guide template I could use for all the plants that were currently living in my brain, and I keep the pages in a binder so I can look up the information whenever I need it. (I keep it all a green binder, because it's all about plants!)

A honey bee on yellow mullein flowers

What is a field guide

A field guide is a book that you can take out into the field with you, to help you identify what you're looking at. Field guides are commonly used to identify local birds, plants, and trees.

Peterson Field Guides are the benchmark of commercial field guides, and if you are looking for a book that will help you identify the medicinal and edible plants in your area, I recommend that you get a copy.

A field guide's pages usually contain a plant's name, its Latin name, and a description, as well as photos or drawings.

But in addition to my commercial field guide - which helps me make a 100% positive ID of a plant - I've put together my own personalized field guide too.

Personalize your field guide

A make-your-own field guide can be customized to your needs and contains exactly what you want to remember.

It contains only the plants that are in your local area, plants that you've seen and want to remember. This means it's easier to find the information you need.

Materials you'll need to make a field guide

Choose the materials that you prefer. Use pen and paper and make your book as you go, or add the information on your laptop and print out the pages to keep in a binder.

The pages can be laminated so you can take them out in the field. 

Or you can write it all down in a composition notebook so it's easier to tote around, in a "bullet journal" type of format. (This one has a vintage floral cover that reminds me of fields and flowers.)

Your customized field guide should work for you, in whatever way you need to organize your information.

Your field guide can help you distinguish between similar plants

Plantain, for example. Plantain is an excellent wild herb that will help stop the discomfort of a bee sting, mosquito bites and other skin irritations.

(It doesn't necessarily help with scorpion stings though. I know that for a fact!)

A clump of plantain growing in a field.

Just chew up a plantain leaf and apply it to your skin. Hold it on with your hand, or wrap the area with  vet wrap or even duct tape to keep the plantain poultice in place.

But sometimes, especially in the early spring, plantain and curly dock leaves look a lot alike. 

I've learned how to tell the difference now, and what to look for so I know exactly which plant it actually is, but in the beginning when I was just learning about these plants, it was hard to remember all the details so I could make a positive ID.

By making my own field guide for these plants, I could write down the name of the plant, add my own photo, and make notes about its uses, where it grew wild on our land, and tips to make sure it was the right plant.

And I could use plain language that I understood, by writing the description in my own words. I don't have to remember that a "peduncle" is a flower stalk, or that "glabrous" means smooth or hairless.

Seriously, why not just say "the leaves are smooth," right?

What to include on a plant's profile page

Create a plant profile page for each plant or herb you want to include in your field guide. Include the following information for each one.

  • Common Name
  • Scientific Name
  • Description: A brief description of the plant's appearance, including its size, shape, color, and any distinctive features such as fuzzy leaves, or the characteristics of the leave's veins.
  • Habitat: Where the plant is typically found (in forests, meadows, along a river bank).
  • Growing Conditions: Where the plant thrives, such as in full sun, or sandy soil. 
  • Uses: Any traditional or medicinal uses of the plant. 
  • Images: Whether you include photographs or drawings or both, having an image of the plant to compare to the actual living plant in the wild is invaluable.
  • Notes: Any additional information about the plant.

If a plant should be foraged in a certain stage or time of year, write that down. 

Some of my pages have copious notes that I've added over the years. 

I know that wild violet leaves are found in shady places, and that chickweed is ready to harvest in late spring, so I've added that information to my own homemade field guide.

A woman's hand holding purple dead nettle with a white bucket of foraged herbs in the background.
Purple dead nettle

Totally customizable

Because I've "written" my field guide myself, it is completely customized to my area and my needs.

Here are a few more ideas to help you customize your personalized field guide:

  • You can add as many photos as you wish, one in each stage of growth for instance. You might include a photo of wild mullein seedlings with notes about what to look for when the plants are small, plus photos of the leaves, the flower stalks, and a close-up of the small yellow flowers.

  • If you prefer, you might want to press the flowers of a plant and keep a few in your field guide, or photocopy the pressed flowers for more durability.

  • Add extra pages with "recipes." Include general directions for making tinctures or salves, or how to dry plants and herbs.

Many plants, including mullein, have lookalikes that are dangerous, toxic or even poisonous. Be sure you can identify a plant with 100% certainty before you use it in any way.

Before using any herb or plant, please research it fully and be sure you have made a positive ID. 
You are responsible for your own health. 

Two pages from a homemade field guide of medicinal plants.

How to format your DIY field guide

Your field guide pages could be laminated for easy reference in the field and pasture, or you can keep them in sheet protectors and stored in a binder.

Organize your field guide in whatever way makes sense to you.

  • You might keep the pages for yellow-flowering plants together in a "chapter," or organize plants that grow in full sun together, or plants that are found in the woods.

  • Or you might want to organize the plants by use, or by the month in which they bloom, or even keep all the white-flowering plants together.

  • Use alphabetical tabs and keep all the plants beginning with the same letter, P for example, in the same section. 

  • A table of contents page in the front will help you find the correct page, especially when you've been adding to your field guide for some time and have a lot of entries!

Remember, before using any herb, please research it fully. 
You are responsible for your own health. 

Supplies for a DIY field guide: sheet protectors and tabbed dividers

Using your homemade field guide

No matter how you organize your do-it-yourself field guide, it will keep the information that's important to you in one place, where it's handy and easy to look up.

Keeping directions and instructions and recipes in this binder will also help you find what you need when you need it.

If someone in your family has a stuffy nose, for instance, and you want to forage some mullein to make a tea, you can grab your personalized field guide, look up mullein, check your notes for where it grows on your property or nearby, and find the instructions to make a healing tea.

You might also enjoy the following articles:

Why I Hate Mowing the Yard 
Woolly Mullein, how to identify and use it
How to forage, harvest and dry yarrow


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