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Marking and tagging plants


Keeping track of which plants grow where gets to be a bit of a challenge when you've got hundreds of species and varieties, and grow new and different ones every year. Over the years, I've tried a few approaches to mark their locations, and have settled on a few favorite methods. On this page, I'll show you what I use, and tell you about the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches.

First - my rejected methods

When I started gardening, I often used the plastic label that comes with the plant from the nursery. It's certainly convenient, and they're about the right shape and size. But I don't use them any more, for aesthetic reasons: with their colorful pictures, they draw too much attention to themselves.

These handsome copper markers tempted me a few years ago. They are small, start out coppery-shiny, and fade to a dull brown within a few months of being outside. You can write on them with a permanent marker, but their real attraction to me was the ability to write in relief into the thin sheet copper, using an inkless pen and a bit of manual force. This promised to be really permanent! But the markers had two drawbacks: first of all, they still reverted to a nearly illegible state within a couple of years, through weathering and corrosion. But more importantly, these markers just weren't large enough to dig into the soil and stay put. Even in the rock garden, where I tried to put them to use, they were always coming out and getting strewn all over the place. So I gave up on them. I still have some - if you're attending my plant sale and would like to have them, write me an e-mail and I'll stash them away for you.

Permanently marking established plants

The cap-style marker
For lack of time, lack of supplies, or just pure laziness, only a small minority of the plants in our garden are marked in such a way that visitors can find out what's growing where. I've had ambitions of more widespread labeling, especially ahead of the garden tour that brought many visitors around in the summer of 2005, but somehow it hasn't happened yet. But slowly, more plants are getting labeled, mostly because I try to make a point of marking new nursery purchases. And for those labels, I have settled on one kind of marker, available from Paw Paw Everlast Label Company: the business end is an all-zinc nameplate, attached to a galvanized-wire standard.

The miniature marker
Simple, reasonably elegant, and quite functional. I use two styles, shown in the pictures. The miniature marker is handy for the rock garden, and to mark other smaller plants around the garden. It's fairly easy to install, because its legs don't penetrate so deeply, and are less likely to hit a stone in the process. Of course, on the flipside, they get uprooted a little more easily than the second type: the cap style marker. This one has all the advantages and disadvantages that come with longer legs, and one additional somewhat troublesome feature: the nameplate is attached to the standard by a simple wrap-around, and is prone to sliding off.

In its native habitat
This happens more so with plants close to pathways, where children's feet are eternal enemies of order in the garden.

Sleek simplicity
Another reason I like these labels: they are easy to write on, using a black crayon (which Paw Paw is also happy to sell). I prefer the mechanical-pencil style, which keeps a sufficiently fine writing point and lasts forever. The writing itself doesn't last forever, but holds up for at least a year or three, and is easy to refresh when necessary. A permanent garden marker (see below) will also mark on these labels, but I don't like the look as much as the crayon. Lead pencil fades faster.

Utilitarian memory aids

I may not be consistent with my decorative markers, but I've learned from experience that there can be no shortcutting basic plant marking habits. No matter how obvious you think it is which plant you've put in a certain place in summer, come early next spring it's anyone's guess - unless of course you've marked its place. And that's where my everyday plant markers of choice come in.

A manly marker
I'm not exactly original here: I follow the time-honored tradition among gardeners of recycling spent vinyl blinds for garden purposes. After a few slats have broken and the bright white has yellowed a bit from several years' exposure to the sun, these handy window treatments may not look so hot any more in the interior decor - but a whole new life awaits them in the garden!

My modus operandi is to cut the miniblind slats into about five-inch lengths, and then cut them lengthwise. I used to use the full width, but they stand out too much in the garden that way. Don't try to mark them with a standard permanent marker: it fades within a single season. On the other hand, the permanent garden markers sold by various mail-order companies do quite well. I've always gotten mine from Mellingers (now defunct), and although different years' supplies had different markings on the outside, the inner workings are identical.

Its perennial companion retreated into the soil, this label bravely waits out winter
The initially fine point wears down a bit after a while, making it somewhat more difficult to write all the plant name information along the narrow label, but the markers last me about a season, and the writing holds up for at least two.

The resulting black-on-white labels are marvellous for seedling pots and for the plants I offer in my plant sale. In the garden, they do have their drawbacks: in our rocky clay soil, planting them can be a challenge - to avoid breaking them, more often than not I need to stick a trowel into the soil and slide the label alongside it.

Just imagine how hard it would be to remember which plants are where without these tags...
In our garden, these labels are not intended to advertise the plants' identities to passersby. I usually apply the label behind the plant, and stick it deep into the soil, to where I can just make out its white top. That way, they are less prone to frost-heaving and other modes of dislodging, and the writing is protected from sun-bleaching.

Not that they don't get heaved out anyway. This is especially a problem in our nursery area, which has more friable soil than most other garden areas. It's funny to walk by this area in mid-winter, and see all the labels, which were hardly visible in summer, pushed up out of the soil, some even all the way out and toppled over. I'm contemplating methods of serrating or barbing the labels so they'll stay put better - but I doubt I'll ever do it. After all, these are intended to be temporary, until a) the plants in question have hit the compost pile, b) I know the plant so well that a label is no longer needed, or c) the temporary label is replaced with a permanent one (see above).

And the handcrafted

Note the artwork!

No page about garden markers would be complete without showing off the handicraft of my son (heavily aided by my wife), who offered me a whole set of rock vegetable markers for Father's day one year. They've proven quite durable, although they serve more of a whimsical decorative purpose than a practical one.





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