Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop – Labeling and Record-Keeping

– Posted in: Garden Design

Figuring out how to handle labeling is one of those ever-puzzling aspects of gardening. Do you keep the tags your plants come with, filling your garden with dozens or hundreds of bits of plastic? Do you replace them with something prettier or more creative? Do you tape them into a special garden notebook, so you can keep track of where all of your plants came from, how they perform, and how you take care of them? Or do you simply toss the labels in the trash as soon as you get the plants in the ground?

For me, the answer to all of these questions has, at some point, been “yes.” When I first started gardening, every label went into the ground with its corresponding plant, just as it was in the pot. Having the labels visible certainly made it easy to refer to them when trying to learn the plant names.

But after a few seasons, I caught on to several disadvantages: The exposed labels tend to fade quickly, making them useless; they’re very prone to getting pushed or raked out of the garden, so they easily get lost or broken; and they’re generally just plain awful-looking.

So then I started exploring other types of labels. The metal hairpin-type labels tend to be sturdier, but they’re also way too easy to trip over, step on, or pull out with a rake. (I do like the metal hanging labels for trees and shrubs, but I seem to have a knack for attaching them to parts that later need to be pruned off, and it’s a bother to have to have to find and then reattach them.) Pre-made wooden, stoneware, slate, or terra cotta labels are more decorative, but they’re usually limited to the most basic names: do you really need a label that simply says Basil or Sedum? I must admit to being fond of some of the sillier ones, though, such as “Plantus unknownus,” “Twigga mortis,” or the ever-appropriate “I Don’t Remember Planting This.”

For many years, I was smitten by the idea of taping the labels into a notebook for easy record-keeping, though my results were somewhat haphazard. Eventually, the labels piled up much faster than I could add them, and I kind of lost interest when it got to the point that some of the plants had died before I got around to making notes on them.

And then, there were seasons when I tossed most, if not all, new labels. I figured I didn’t really care what the names were; I just liked how the plants looked. (That approach makes sense until you want to buy more of a plant you really like and can’t remember what it is or where you bought it.) And then there’s the ill-fated “Oh, I’ll remember what this is.” Oh no, you won’t; trust me.

Nowadays, I use a combination of approaches. White plastic labels are my must-have for seed-starting. When I plant out annuals and tender perennials, I toss all of the labels for the year into an empty pot, so I can easily sort through them out later if needed. For perennials, I keep the plastic tag but stick it all the way into the ground, so it’s safe and not likely to fade. How do I find it later? I always put it on the side closest to the front edge of the bed or border. If you’re not directionally challenged, you might prefer to always bury the labels on the north side of the plant, or else use some other consistent placement that you’ll remember.

Along with various label materials, I’ve experimented with various kinds of marking tools: pencils, ballpoint pens, paint pens, Sharpies, and supposedly fade-resistant nursery marking pens. The hands-down winner for me has always been ordinary pencil: it’s perfect for all but the shiniest plastic and wooden tags.

One of the greatest innovations for plant record-keeping has to be the digital camera. It’s so easy to take a picture of the label right against the plant, and then of the plant in the garden, so you have a visual record of the name and where the plant is growing. Usually, these photos are more practical than pretty, so I drag all of the ID images into a separate folder. (If you’re really organized, you could make subfolders for each garden area.) What a blessing this is when you’re going through a whole year’s worth of images, trying to remember what’s what! This way, LOLAs (lost labels) are pretty much a thing of the past. (Unfortunately, there’s still no easy answer for plants acquired as NOLAs [no labels] or NOIDs [no ID].)

Some final thoughts on labels – specifically about the proliferation of plastic picture tags. I totally get that these tags can be handy: you have some idea of the flower color, which is handy if the plant isn’t in bloom, and it’s helpful to have details on the height and preferred growing conditions right at hand. But is there really any point to having a picture of the leaves on the tag for a foliage plant, such as coleus? Seems like overkill to me. And goodness, those tags seem to be getting larger and larger; in fact, it’s not unusual for them to be even bigger than the plants themselves! (Though, as anyone who has worked in a garden center can tell you, there are always customers who can pick up a plant with a tag as big as a baby’s head and ask “What is this?”)

The problem with all of these plastic labels is more than an aesthetic issue; it’s also an environmental concern. Think of all the energy and resources that go into making them, and all the space they take up in landfills. The nursery industry is starting to use biodegradable pots (such as the one at left), which is great. But it almost seems pointless when they’re designed to be used with these relatively large picture tags made out of regular plastic. If we can have biodegradable pots, why not biodegradable labels? A Google search brought up a few references to plastics that could be used for such labels (here’s one), but it sure would be great to see more of them, don’t you think?

Well, enough from me; now it’s your turn! Want to tell us how you deal with the whole issue of keeping track of your plants?  Write a post on anything related to plant labels or garden record-keeping on your own blog and leave a link here, or jot down your thoughts in a comment below. If you’ve written about the topic in the past, those links are equally welcome; it’s not necessary to create a new post to participate.

At the end of the month, I’ll gather all of the links into one summary post for easy reference. If you’re interested in checking out previous GBD Workshops, you can find them here:

Paths and Walkways
Fences and Walls
Arbors and Pergolas
Color in the Garden
Container Plantings
Front-Yard Gardens
Stone in the Garden
Decks, Porches, and Patios
Garden Whimsy
Trellises and Screens
Water in the Garden
Sheds and Outbuildings
Incorporating Edibles
Kids in the Garden

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

Latest posts by Nancy J. Ondra (see all)

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VP January 1, 2009, 6:36 am

Oooooohhhh count me in on this one – I can think of lots of things to say already!

And it’s not only what I do (and half do!) that I can tell you about. I’ve been involved with a big plant ID project with the National Trust too (hundreds of thousands of plants, if not millions!), so I can add some perspective from there. It shows that even the big guns have problems with keeping a track of their plants!

Great, VP – I look forward to hearing about your experiences. I bet you have lots of good tips to share.
-Nan

Wayne Stratz January 1, 2009, 7:26 am

I too have used all the approaches and can fully understand the “I’ll just toss them stage.” One of my goals for this year is record keeping improvements, if I write a post, I’ll send it over.

I think the “toss them” approach is my favorite – or at least it was, until I started blogging and wanted to be able to identify and file my garden photos so I could easily find them later. If you come up with any ideas, I’d love to hear them!
-Nan

Sylvia (England) January 1, 2009, 8:07 am

Nan, what a great topic, one that so many of us struggle with but rarely discussed. One of the highlights of our September holiday was Abbey House Gardens, Malmesbury, England. This is a fantastic garden full of plants and different area overlooked by the abbey ruins. But the gardeners are collectoholics and while I am grateful that they mark everything, some areas are just a sea of large wooden labels. I hope to return to this garden, it is well worth a visit but will remember it for its labels, which also dominate some of the photos! But would I want them to take all the labels away… probably not.

I am looking forward to the posts on this subject, I think there will be lots. Best wishes Sylvia

You raise another excellent point, Sylvia – when the labels are too visible, it can detract from the garden. But if there are *no* labels, you lose a whole level of informational value, which is sad too. I doubt there will ever be one good solution – unless perhaps we give each plant a microchip and use GPS mapping to track where we put them. Nah, I doubt even that would work; I imagine a lot of the chips would end up in the compost bin!
-Nan

Lisa at Greenbow January 1, 2009, 8:28 am

Hi Nan, My New Years message was on topic for this months discussion. I have a love/hate relationship with those tags. I love all the information they have on them but I hate having to keep them. I really hate the way they have made them so BIG lately.

I have found that my favorite way to keep them is in the back of my journals. I am sure there are better methods. I have even read about seperate journals, files etc but I just can’t seem to do one more step with them other than stapling them into the back of my journal. I put together the ones that I plant in pots and then the rest go in as I purchase and plant them.

Super, Lisa! Here’s a direct link to your post: Happy New Year. You get the prize (if there were one) for being the first post for the month!
-Nan

Susan Tomlinson January 1, 2009, 9:31 am

I’m not going to be very helpful on this one, but I can’t wait to see what others have to report.

That’s ok, Susan – you can participate by reading as well as posting. I too look forward to seeing how others handle the whole “to label, or not to label” conundrum.
-Nan

Frances January 1, 2009, 9:32 am

Hi Nan, what a great topic, I could write a book on this subject, still trying to find the best way to remember the names of the plants, with help. So far there is no best way, but I will look forward to reading other’s ways of handling this dilemma. Happy new year to you and the boys too!
Frances

Who knows: maybe some blogger out there has come up with a brilliant solution for a permanent, low-maintenance, and environmentally friendly labeling system – or maybe we’re all equally confused. We’ll see!
-Nan
P.S. Happy New Year to you too, Frances, and to all of our readers!

Diana January 1, 2009, 10:52 am

Nan – Fabulous post! And so much like me…a little of this and a little of that. And mostly disatisfied with whatever I’ve done. I want the tags to be pretty, but they don’t seem to last. That’s one of my goals for 09 – tagging everything uniformly. Now you’ve inspired me to get on it! I do write things in a notebook by bed, but sometimes I forget. I’m a binge and purge record keeper! Keep encouraging us…all the best for you and yours in the New Year.

That sounds like a very sensible resolution for the upcoming year, Diana. I do find that the notebook approach works well. I too am not the most consistent record-keeper, but even if I just keep track of the plants and seeds I buy in a given year, I find it can be very helpful. Happy New Year!
-Nan

Helen - patientgardener January 1, 2009, 2:59 pm

I think I can contribute to this one as it is a dilema I am always having. I havent got my head round taking photos with label – that seems so obvious now you have mentioned it!!!!

I picked up that idea from going on garden tours, when I saw other visitors doing it. But when I’d shoot the label with a regular camera, I’d often get it out of focus and not realize it until I got the slides developed – way too late. With the digital, I can tell immediately if I can read the name on the label.

I look forward to seeing your post, Helen!
-Nan

Shady Gardener January 1, 2009, 3:05 pm

I started this past (early) Spring by recording in a little 3×5″ spiral index card notebook that I could easily carry around. I’d already been using (for the majority of my plants) the little metal garden markers… Now I want to transfer the drawings, labels and information into a 3-ring binder with pockets of some sort that will include info about the plants, etc. Eventually I hope that it will be complete (at least in time for the next gardener to take over after I cannot be here any more!) ;-)

Ooh, I like your idea of using a small index-card notebook, as well as thinking about record-keeping to help the gardener who will come after you. I remember how delighted I was to get a little map the former owners had made when I bought my previous house. There were only a few fruit trees labeled, but at least I had that much info.
-Nan

Xris (Flatbush Gardener) January 1, 2009, 8:19 pm

Though I no longer refer to them, I still have boxes of index cards from the early 1980s that served as my plant database. These days, almost everything’s digital, with photographs online and records of orders placed.

However, I still like my labels in the garden. My favorite are the aluminum labels. They can be marked – and erased – with an ordinary 2B pencil. When I kill plants, I can erase them and reuse the tags for my next experiment.

On the front I write the botanical and common names. On the back I write the source, year and season I bought it. I can age some of my perennials this way, which is nice as they, and their labels, follow me from garden to garden. Some of them are over 10 years, 3 gardens, old.

An easy way to reduce the visual impact of the labels is to place them BEHIND the plant, rather than in front. The plant grows up to hide the label, but it’s still available, tucked discreetly behind, when I’m trying to remember the correct name, or when I obtained something.

Hey, Xris – thanks for sharing these tips. Good point about the aluminum labels being reusable and so long-lasting. I too have some floating around that date back to the early 90s. They’re much longer-lived then the plants they’ve accompanied.
-Nan

Gail January 1, 2009, 9:02 pm

Nan, I keep all the tags…they are aptly named my Bloom Tag Bouquets….I posted on this last year! I will revise it and add some more thoughts to the mix! This will be a fun to read all the different posts! I am going to try to remember to take photos of my new plants in the ground with their tags…thank you! Happy New Year! Gail

Happy New Year to you, Gail! With the ever-increasing size of those picture tags, I wonder if we might be better off simply sticking them in the garden and chucking the plants. Think of the time and trouble we’d save: no mulching or watering required (though we’d still have to weed around them, I guess). Anyway, here’s a direct link to your original post – Bouquet of Bloom …Tags. I think it’s great as it is!
-Nan

LINDA from EACH LITTLE WORLD January 1, 2009, 9:31 pm

What a great group of ideas — both from you and the comments. I’m with you on burying the labels. I put them in the back, right corner of the plant. I really like your idea of the digital shot with the label in it and a separate folder for those images. Nice and useful and logical. I have a whole catalog system that I wrote about here and here.

Excellent, Linda – thanks for the links. I look forward to reading about your cataloging system. We’re getting some great ideas on this topic, and I suspect many of us will learn a lot!
-Nan

Michelle January 1, 2009, 9:44 pm

As part of my landscape design services I provide a client with an As Build Planting Plan.
Common names , latin names and maintenance notes are included.
The plans are taken to Kinko’s and are laminated.
This lamination helps keep the plans dry when out in the field .
You can also use a Sharpie felt tip pin to write on the incased plan if a plant should die or be removed and replanted with something else.

As for tags in the garden I like to throw away the bright blue or white plastic tags and replace them with bamboo tags.
I found a great source for bamboo tags in Japan Town in San Francisco. They are flat, about a half inch wide and 12 inches long.
I use a Black Warrior drafting pencil when writing the plant name on the tags.

Oh wow, Michelle – bamboo: the ultimate renewable resource! What a brilliant idea. I found an online UK source for a variety of shapes and sizes of bamboo labels but couldn’t find any here in the US. Anybody know of any?
-Nan

Gayle Madwin January 2, 2009, 1:01 pm

I’ve never attempted (and don’t plan to ever attempt) labeling the plants themselves, except in the case of potted seedlings. For the other plants, I keep records in Microsoft Excel of what I’ve planted, where I planted it, whether it’s still alive or not, what I think it died of, and so on. This has worked perfectly so far.

Welcome to GGW, Gayle! I admire your organizational skills. I like that you keep notes about the possible cause of death of the plants that die. That must be very helpful when you’re trying to decide whether you want to replace them.
-Nan

Angela (In the Cottage Garden) January 3, 2009, 6:16 pm

Heh! I’ve gone from uber-organized plans and spreadsheets to a shoebox of tags. I’ll do a post on it and share. Fun!
~Angela :-)

Leave us a link whenever your post is ready, Angela!
-Nan

Angela (In the Cottage Garden) January 3, 2009, 6:17 pm

Oh, and I wanted to ask — is it okay to go back and do the old workshops now? Because I was moving and missed most of 2008!
~Angela :-)
P.S. I moved my garden posts from Cottage Magpie to In the Cottage Garden so I could be more garden-focused. So your sidebar link probably needs updating! :-)

Absolutely, Angela – feel free to add links to previous topics whenever you’re ready. All of those wrap-up posts still get lots of visitors looking for inspiration and ideas.

Thanks for the reminder about updating our blogroll. I’ll do it right now.
-Nan

Wayne Stratz January 3, 2009, 9:52 pm

I use that photo both plant and label when I go to museums that allow photographs. I always take a photo of the artist tag so I can tag the photo on flickr.

check out this website… I just heard about it.

http://myfolia.com/

I am going to try it this year.

Let us know what you think of the site, Wayne. Anyone else here trying it?
-Nan

Cameron(Defining Your Home Garden) January 4, 2009, 5:45 pm

Like many gardeners, I have tried just about everything that I can think of. What gets me is when I do keep a label with a plant and the plant isn’t what was on the label!

Lately, I’m using my digital camera as my favorite record keeping tool by using keywords to organize the plants by category; then putting the name of the plant as the title.

I’ve started working on duplicating a photo of companion plants, then writing the plant name over each plant in the group so that I don’t need one photo per plant.

I still need to do a lot of improvement on my system, but I’m getting closer.

I was careful to use the plastic labels for my allium, irises, larkspur and poppies this fall.

Cameron

Oh, my – mislabeling is a whole *other* issue, Cameron! I’m glad you worked a bunch of your ideas into your post: Garden Plan, Garden Map or Garden Photos?
-Nan

Sarah January 5, 2009, 12:21 am

I use a three-ring binder and write in signifcant plants chronologically. I know have 13 years of data. The down side is there is no other indexing except time. I have begun transferring the info to spreadsheets.
My current frustration is that the “permanent” markers I used to ID seeds faded immediately from the white strips I created out of cut up yougurt containers. Will pencil really write permanently on plastic? I need a material that is easily available; I never have enough popsicle sticks, etc. and there’s a limitless supply of plastic strips in any household because of food containers.

I’ve found that ordinary pencil writes well on the plastic used for plant labels, on aluminum, and on the stuff used to make window blinds (the unused slats are easy to cut and make long-lasting labels). The plastic containers you mention seem to be too hard for a pencil to mark them. I certainly don’t want to discourage recycling, but maybe it would be worth you buying a few dozen plastic plant labels for your seeds? It’s relatively easy to erase and re-use them for years if you’re careful.
-Nan

Cameron(Defining Your Home Garden) January 5, 2009, 11:23 am

Here’s my blog post about my attempts at documenting what’s in one section of my garden.

http://definingyourhome.blogspot.com/2009/01/garden-plan-garden-map-or-garden-photos.html

Good to see you, Cameron. I look forward to checking out your post!
-Nan

Carol, May Dreams Gardens January 6, 2009, 9:36 pm

I wrote a new post about embracing plant labels…

http://maydreamsgardens.blogspot.com/2009/01/using-temporary-botanical-names.html

And I’ve previously posted about my attempt to create a plant catalog of my garden…

http://maydreamsgardens.blogspot.com/2008/06/plant-catalog-update.html

This is a great topic and I’m looking forward to reading the various posts with ideas on better plant labeling and record keeping. I keep records in a 10 year journal…

http://maydreamsgardens.blogspot.com/2008/08/embrace-garden-journals-for-happier.html

(Sorry my links aren’t prettier…)

They don’t need to be pretty, Carol; we’re happy to have them! Thanks for sharing these posts.
-Nan

Lois J. de Vries January 8, 2009, 9:25 am

Hi Nan,

Thanks for the tip about using the digital camera to record plant labels. So obvious, once someone points it out!

I think the first thing to do is to ask yourself why you are keeping the label. If you can recognize the plant, and know where it’s located, the label doesn’t need to be in the garden.

Mine never last anyway — either Dan weedwhacks them to the ground (thank goodness he usually misses the plant), the dogs pull them out, etc.

Others have complained to me that their lawn service blew their labels all over the place when the leaves came down.

I finally realized that, except for new plants I’m unfamiliar with, I really don’t want the labels in the garden. I keep a rather disorganized heap of labels in my garden notebook. During the winter doldrums, I sketch a rough map of where the plant is located and bind the label into the notebook.

That sounds like a fun winter project, Lois. I too try to minimize visible labels in my own garden. Relying on my memory hasn’t proven as successful as I’d hoped, so the camera method works best for me. The display gardens at work have provided a new challenge, though, because the plants need to be identified in place.
-Nan

Jim/ArtofGardening.org January 19, 2009, 4:06 pm

Count me in again Nan.

http://artofgardeningbuffalo.blogspot.com/2009/01/i-try-to-avoid-labeling.html

Thanks, Jim! If you hadn’t done this post, I was going to link directly to the Harry Potter post in the wrap-up; those labels are an integral part of the experience.
-Nan

Pam Kersting January 20, 2009, 6:28 pm

Labels! I love them, but can live without them. Most of the gardens I design, I use a plan to identify the exact plant including botanical name, common name and cultivar. Thereby, eliminating the need for plastic labels. The few that I do keep end up in a manila file folder labeled “Garden Plants.” I am new to the blogging world, so haven’t tackled this topic yet!

Welcome to the community, Pam, and to GGW! Sounds like you’ve come up with a good system for you.
-Nan

VP January 22, 2009, 5:25 am

Hi,

Post number one’s up today about the work in progress re my garden’s record keeping and labelling:

http://vegplotting.blogspot.com/2009/01/tagging-my-garden.html

Post number 2 is planned for next week about the National Trust’s approach plus snippets about other gardens open to the public. I’ll pop back with a link when it’s up.

Two posts for one topic – that’s super, VP! Thanks so much.
-Nan

Heirloom Gardener January 24, 2009, 7:30 pm

Nan,

What a great topic. Here is a post from last year about keeping a Garden Journal, which is one component of my labeling and record keeping:

http://heirloomgardener.blogspot.com/2008/03/invaluable-tool-how-to-keep-garden.html

I am working on another post about my Garden Planning Binder, which I use to keep track of what I have ordered, where I plan to plant it, and what I need to order.

-Heirloom Gardener

Super, HG! Thanks once again for being one of our regular workshop contributors.
-Nan

VP January 26, 2009, 7:17 am

Hi,

Here’s the second piece I promised – my experiences of what the National Trust is doing over here:

http://vegplotting.blogspot.com/2009/01/garden-tagging-national-trust-way.html

Thanks again, VP! I’m really looking forward to seeing how the experts approach the labeling issue.
-Nan

Heirloom Gardener January 26, 2009, 11:29 pm

Nan,

I used to struggle to keep track of what I had ordered, where I planned to plant it, and what I still needed to purchase. Here is a new post about my solution to the disorganization, the Garden Planning Binder:

http://heirloomgardener.blogspot.com/2009/01/how-to-keep-track-of-what-plants-you.html

-Heirloom Gardener

Awesome, HG! Thanks for the link.
-Nan

Frances January 27, 2009, 6:57 am

January is such a long month, it seemed like there was plenty of time, then all of a sudden the end was near! The point being, my post is up. :-)

http://fairegarden.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/not-what-but-where/

Frances

January did seem to pass quickly, didn’t it? Still, you’re in with plenty of time. Thanks, Frances!
-Nan

Commonweeder January 28, 2009, 2:49 pm

Nan, This is a great post. Like all of us, I’ve had quite a history with labels, full of failures and inconsistencies. I’ve learned that ceramic labels (onions, parsley, carrots) are the kind of thing non-gardening friends give you as a gift, that plastic labels break and fade, copper labels fall into the compost and mulch and wooden labels around the roses in the lawn get mowed over if they aren’t removed immediately after the Annual Rose Viewing. Records in my garden journal are intermittenly useful. At least the Map of the Rose Walks and Beds are almost accurate. But change is ever a companion. Photos are helpful, but they don’t provide the Where very well. I am looking forward to the round up for inspiration and instruction.

VP January 29, 2009, 4:46 am

Hi – me again!

I’ve written up this year’s allotment plan and realised it also fits into this month’s GGW theme :)

http://vegplotting.blogspot.com/2009/01/veg-plotting-2009-style.html

Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 1, 2009, 1:19 pm

Thank you for doing this topic. I have completely given up on labelling my plants. I don’t like the look of the plant markers (it always reminds me of headstones in a garden gnome cemetary), and I’ve tried putting the tag that came with the plant under the mulch next to the plant, but the squirrels always dig them up. It’s time for me to get inspired.

Glad you too found it of interest, MMD!
-Nan

Cheryl February 2, 2009, 12:27 pm

So many great ideas. I did a post on the mini blind lable recently, and I’ll be using the labels for this years garden. Usually I just stick the manufacturer’s labels in a plastic bag and store it. Once it goes into the garden I don’t really need to refer back to it, but I’m a bit of a pack rat and keep everything. I think I’ll like the mini blind labels in the vegetable garden because of the uniformity.

As far as garden journals, last year my “journal” was my digital camera card. It’s got hundreds of pictures on it, and I like being able to see the journey from the first true leaves of a cantaloupe, for instance, all the way to the cantaloupe on a plate just after you’ve picked it.

Great post, Cheryl! Here’s a direct link to It Was Going to the Garbage…Now It’s Going to the Garden.
-Nan