Labeling plants in your garden is a rather controversial subject. This statement is mainly due to the size of the plants in relation to the size of the labels. Vegetables, perennials, shrubs or trees can be labeled in an inconspicuous manner but in rock gardens and areas full of low growing plants, labels are always very visible.
Some feel that the labels spoil the natural quality and “look” of the garden setting. Others complain that the labels themselves create a “congested” landscape in some ways resembling a “tiny cemetery”.
My entire garden is labeled and I would have it no other way. As a matter of fact, I’ve spent so much time in public gardens and arboretums that when I visit a garden without labels I feel somewhat cheated. I am referring here to cultivated and well-maintained garden spaces as opposed to meadow-like and other naturally planted areas.
Whenever a plant or seedling is planted, my “initial” label goes in at the same time. I have tried all types of available labels of various materials such as wood, plastic and metal. For my purposes, the metal, two-part labels work the best and are readily available in garden centers. I use an indelible pen with black ink, slide the horizontal label onto the 2-prong stake and install the label somewhere in front of the plant.
I called the above labeling “initial” because it is not the permanent label that I use. After one year of healthy growth and survival of an entire winter and summer season, each plant gets a professionally engraved arboretum-style plastic label (I use “gardenmarkers.com”). These labels are horizontal, approximately 1” deep by 3” wide with the plant name showing white against the label’s black background. The label is attached to the metal stake with an adhesive backing and the stake is pushed into the soil so that the label is a bit higher than the top of the mulch. It looks nice, does not seem obtrusive and lasts if not forever, certainly longer than the gardener installing it.
Some gardeners who also use metal labels use a standard #2 pencil as opposed to the indelible black pen. The writing does not seen to fade away as the indelible pen will do in time. My problem with the pencil is that I can’t read it from any distance and I need to crawl almost on top of the label to make it out.
I have not found the fading of the black ink a problem. The benefit of reading it so easily is a plus and anyway it is replaced the next year with a permanent label as long as the plant survives. The metal “initial” labels are saved and reused as needed. Most gardeners don’t know that the indelible ink can be removed by rubbing the label with your fingers and a bit of any standard machine lubricating oil such as W-D 40.
Engraved metal labels are used by some gardeners, which are extremely long lasting but equally hard to read without getting as close as you would to read a book. I find them annoying in the garden environment, where they remind me of military dog tags. By the way, over time they will rust and become even harder to read.
The benefit of a label “program” allows the gardener to be reminded at a glance of where specific plants were originally planted and how they have spread. Also, it clearly shows which plants are thriving as opposed to those that may not have survived a particular season. The benefit to visitors, both horticulturally and educationally, goes without saying.
Finally, there is the simple “memory function”. Gardeners sometimes forget what was planted where. Also, many times early spring shoots cannot readily be confirmed as plant or weed. Finally, there could always be a question if no label exists, if a current bare spot was ever actually planted.
Some September reminders:
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