The Case for Plant Labeling

We all believe (as Garden Geeks) that the minds we have at twenty-four will stay supple and fit, able to remember a thousand genera and ten thousand named species at a moment’s notice – not that we have much call to provide such information at a moment’s notice (at that age) unless we’re lucky enough to be interning at Chanticleer or Great Dixter.

It’s a bit of a shock to wake up years later and find you can’t remember what you had for dinner the night before.


We think we’ll remember, but as the plant palette grows, it’s easy to forget specific species & cultivars (Hostetler garden, The Plains, VA)


I exaggerate perhaps just a little, but in short, life gets complicated and the ten percent of our brains that we actually use are quickly filled with information we heartily wish we didn’t know.  1040As replace Form EZs.  Soon you know what ‘escrow’ means.  Once you’ve passed that electrifying milestone, you very quickly learn what caulk does, how to apply it, and how to make a vulgar joke whilst ostensibly discussing home improvement.

Details crowd out details.  Your children force you to recall aspects of your calculus education you were happy to forget the moment you passed the test, and your accountant forces you to recall aspects of your personal finance class you never knew in the first place.

You have an accountant.  You have to remember where her office is.

The next thing you know you’re standing with a friend in your garden discussing the ridiculous plot twists of The Walking Dead over eight interminable but not-to-be-missed years, and when she asks the name of the glorious tree under which you both stand, your mouth opens and nothing comes out.

A planting record is incredibly important, but does you little good outside when you’re wondering where plants finally ended up.

Never mind that you researched, sought and secured it just six years before.

Which brings me, just as interminably, to plant labeling. We say it’s for our visitors, but it’s really for us.

There are several schools of thought about labeling one’s plants – let’s discuss them.


Don’t label. Try to remember.  That’s it.  Try to remember a specific Japanese maple in a grove of other Japanese maples with Japanese names…in (hint) Japanese – particularly when you’re walking your guests around with a glass of wine and speaking garbled English at best.


Keep a detailed record of all purchases and plantings in a journal far away from the actual purchases and plantings.  You know, somewhere you won’t be able to see it when your friend asks you what tree that is and you’re forced to start discussing The Walking Dead again.


Tear off a piece of seed packet, original paper plant label or potting shed paper towel and half bury it in the hole with the plant.  Use whatever comes to hand to mark it – pencil, stick, lipgloss, charcoal bricket etc.…  I’m sure you’ll remember what you were scribbling when you gaze at the pulpy mess in four weeks’ time.


Keep a stash of labels in your pockets with a sharpie.  When you plant, plant a label too.  When your chickens and/or curious children pull up the entirety of all labels in the garden because they were white and interesting, have a nervous breakdown and spend the rest of the evening with the above garden journal and a flashlight.


Spend money.

Plant labeling. We say it’s for our visitors, but it’s really for us.

Yes.  It has come to that.  I’m going to tell you to spend money.

However, speaking as one who would rather do without than not be able to make do, I feel I am exceptionally qualified to tell you that it’s worth it.  My progression:

Fifteen years ago I thought I’d just remember.

Ten years ago I got a journal.

Seven years ago I broke down and left paper hints that also broke down…in five days.

Two years ago, though it hurt, I spent real money and bought packets of white, never used, labels.  That was good, but the guinea hens were worse than the chickens and the children combined.

One year ago, I spent further real money and bought aluminum tags that could be pressure engraved with a pen and attached to a tree or woody shrub.

It was a start.


labels, plant labels, garden labels, labeling

Added to the confusion is the ridiculous amount of names that any one plant, shrub or tree has these days. Between trademarks, plant series and the actual botanical name, you’re a genius if you remember it all without a prompt.


Today, I’m ordering a Brother P-touch D600, 50 12-inch stainless steel Kincaid labels and I’m not looking back.  Not everything needs a label, and no doubt I’ll act as Scrooge, parsimoniously doling them out based on plant life expectancy and status (blatant plantism), but at least I’ll be doling them out. As the garden matures, I may even think about introducing a bit of technology to my trees with cool, digitally interactive labels from PlantsMap.

Quite simply, I’ve been to too many first class gardens, looked at too many first class plants and almost wept when the plant for which I lusted was not only labeled, but clearly labelled. The most recent garden, that of Bill and Linda Pinkham (of former Smithfield Nurseries fame), is a perfect example of how labels don’t necessarily have to distract from the display.  Placed discretely and (most importantly) used regularly they provide a guide for your visitors and a fabulous aide memoire for you.


labels, plant labels


Cons? Money, obviously.  And I know that Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, PA (which does not label plants) has a few thoughts upon the matter too. They have painted a canvas with flora, knocked you over the head with creative artistry, and they don’t want you to get caught up in the minutiae while you’re reeling.  However, by the time you come to, there are plant lists and bustling interns to help you find what you seek.

If I ever get an intern, she won’t have time to look at you, much less talk to you.  I’m going with a label maker.




By | 2018-04-21T16:15:00+00:00 April 21st, 2018|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. tonytomeo April 22, 2018 at 3:08 am - Reply

    I am typical so meticulous with documenting plants that I am not familiar with. When I started planting on a previously undeveloped parcel in Brookdale, I kept perfect records of everything that was planted, and when it was planted; but someone disposed of those records! Gardening is still fun there; I just can not believe that I have no records after keeping such perfect records!

  2. Jen Seymour April 24, 2018 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed reading this! I keep an Excel spreadsheet of everything I’ve planted. Easy to set up. I keep notes in it like where I planted it. It’s amazing how plant names just fade away.

  3. John April 25, 2018 at 8:13 pm - Reply

    Marianne, this is a good idea. I’m now looking at Brother label printers. It seems to me they would fit on the little white plastic labels that I have been using.

  4. natlyons July 1, 2018 at 9:42 am - Reply

    Wonderful! I had never thought to use the labeler in the garden. I bought one a month or so ago when I got ruthless in my file drawer. So glad I read this post.

  5. Sharon October 27, 2018 at 10:46 pm - Reply

    Doesn’t the rain destroy the label?

    • Marianne Willburn October 29, 2018 at 12:55 pm - Reply

      I have not had them on long enough to give you personal experience, however the friends and nurserypeople who have used them for years and years (Brother labels, not the knock-offs), have had no problems at all with disintegration. They have more problems with the metal label getting stepped on and bent. Hope this helps.

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