Create Your Own Digital Garden

Eleventy vs Jekyll vs Obsidian Publish vs Roam vs... oh my!

The first step in my Portfolio redux was figuring out What I want from a personal blog. Number one on that list was a frictionless way to go about [[!Learning in public]] and share thoughts without being constrained to long, polished blog posts. A.k.a a Digital garden.

But what tools are out there to quickly and simply get a Digital garden off the ground without expert programming knowledge? I set out to find out.

Contenders

The all-in-one solutions

  • Roam Research - Best for messy though collection and connections but awkward to share as-is and navigate. Online only and not currently suitable to link in to a blog right out of the box. Paid.
  • Obsidian Publish (paid feature within Obsidian.md) - I already use Obsidian for notetaking and Publish would let me build a blog straight from my notes, including all the features like backlinks, graphs, etc. But also in early development and not great unless I want to build my entire site this way, not just the blog. Paid.
  • Simplenote - Markdown straight to blog. Publish instantly. But no backlinks for connecting notes. Sync built in. Free.
  • Collected notes - Similar to Simplenote but can also integrate as a CMS into Eleventy/[[!static site generator]]s. Again, backlinks an issue. Paid.
  • Notion - Notion has now launched backlinks and already lets you turn your database into a website. Limited styling. Free/Paid.
  • TiddlyWIki - A wiki builder with all sorts of Roam-like add-ons. Designed more for no/low-code. Free & open source.

The blog platforms & site builders

The final three

Looking over the options helped me firm up my criteria. Yours may differ but for me, I evaluated based on three main points which, conveniently, led me to three final contenders.

My criteria

  • How flexible is it? Can I design a complete portfolio, add custom code, build up as I go, have multiple streams of content, etc? For me to use it as a portfolio, it's critical I have control over the design as well as the content.
  • How future proof is it? I plan on building up quite a lot of notes and don't want them getting stuck in a proprietary format, messy export, or unable to build because my a ruby gem wouldn't install properly (looking at you Jekyll).
  • What is the pricing model? I try to pay to support awesomeness but if it's a website I plan on maintaining for years, I do have to keep an eye on how high that monthly bill might get.

Jekyll template

Pros

  • Slick design.
  • Wonderful tutorial (seriously, I wish more templates did this).
  • Total design flexibility.
  • Digital garden tools perfect out of the box, with page previews and automatically unlinking notes that do not yet exist.
  • It's Jekyll so there a plenty of plug-ins and extensions for whatever you might want down the road.
  • Free.

Cons

  • More bits and bobs than I need (ex: graph view)
  • I swore I wouldn't use Jekyll after my old portfolio site (see [[!A portfolio post mortem]]).
  • Jekyll's opinionated about blog structuring, making multiple streams tricky.

Eleventy template

Pros

  • Based on trialling both Eleventy and Jekyll, Eleventy is easier to use and more flexible.
  • Total design flexibility.
  • Easy to install.
  • Eleventy's flexible structure means I can have a blog, garden, portfolio, etc. which can be displayed separately but interlinked. A Digital garden-powered website.
  • Extensible (though not quite as many resources as Jekyll) so I can add RSS, comments, etc. down the line if I want.
  • Free.

Cons

  • More work to get going in terms of design and structuring.
  • Need to format wikilinks to stop things like linking to notes that don't exist.

Obsidian Publish

Pros

  • Integrated in Obsidian.md notes editor for frictionless publishing. I can build a blog without every leaving my editor!
  • All functions out of the box (backlinks, embeds, graphs, etc) including non-standard markdown bits like block reference and embeds.
  • Super fast to get setup: just dump some notes in Obsidian, choose your settings, and publish.

Cons

  • Subscription-based (I already support Obsidian monetarily and think they deserve it but your mileage may vary).
  • No custom code and a lot less control than a [[!static site generator]].
  • Currently no custom domains (but Obsidian is under active and crazy fast development so coming soon).
  • Custom styling now available but not sure it could integrate in overall website without feeling awkward and clearly different.

Winner winner (chicken dinner)

Based on my criteria (flexibility, future proof, pricing), [[!Eleventy]] + this wonderful template came out on top. I tried all three of the final contenders (as well as several of the others from the shortlist) but Eleventy suits my needs best. It is highly customisable, lean, and you can still open Obsidian.md on top and [[!Manage a blog from your notes]].

However, different solutions might be better depending on your own criteria:

If you want no-code, fully functioning Digital garden?

  • Don't mind being a bit messy and obtuse for non-users? Want to collaborate with others? Try Roam Research.
  • Want a bit more structure and full control over style? Want potential flexibility to move to other platforms or build out a custom garden later? Try Obsidian + Obsidian Publish

If you want a simple blog RIGHT NOW...

  • Want a new notes editor and to publish markdown notes instantly? Try Simplenote or Collected Notes.
  • Have your own notes editor (like Obsidian) and want to easily dump them on to the interwebs? Try Blot.im.

Want to ease into a custom Digital garden?

  • Don't want to worry about setup or styling? Already have Jekyll installed? Try this wonderful Jekyll template.
  • Want full control in a simple package? Try the Eleventy template that powers this site. I've got a tutorial for it right here: [[!How to build a digital garden with Eleventy]].

References