Those Pesky Labels!

When I first started growing Rhododendrons, I just had a few plants so it was easy to remember their names, but as my collection has grown, I find myself trying to remember which plant is which, and this has started my love/hate relationship with labels.

I think all gardeners want labels that are inexpensive, that last forever, stay in place and do not harm our plants.  And, since we don't want to see little white stakes all over the garden, which is just too reminiscent of a cemetery, we want something that is unobtrusive as well.  Finding something that fulfills all these wishes is hard and I don't think anyone has designed the perfect label yet.

The plastic, ribbon-like tags that come with most garden centre plants these days last a long time, but the print fades fairly fast and they can girdle the plant stem they're attached to if you happen to forget to loosen them periodically  Anyway, they don't look very nice in a garden setting

There are several problems in using plastic, stick-type labels.  First, you have to find something to mark them with that doesn't fade over time.  Permanent marking pens like the Sharpie pens school children use are o.k., but the ink eventually fades.  I find a lead pencil works just as well as a marking pen and usually outlasts the "permanent ink" writing.  In addition to looking a bit like grave markers, the stick-type tags don't work very well for long-term use because they become brittle and snap after a couple of years.  I've had to piece together old broken tags to decipher plant names on several occasions.  And, finally, tags just stuck in the ground are tempting targets for pranksters to pick up and move around.  This is a problem in one of our local public gardens.  Pranksters don't have to be human either - one Spring, I used stick tags to label a new collection of daylilies.  The crows just loved the tags and pulled them out of the ground.  I found tags all over the place - repeatedly!  Fortunately, I'd made a map of where various daylilies were planted so I was able to re-tag the plants correctly.  Wooden tags (some gardeners use popsicle sticks) have all the same problems as plastic ones, plus the wood rots or splits, so this isn't a good permanent solution to the tag problem

My own favourite labels are the soft aluminum tags where an old ball point pen is used to "engrave" the plant name into the metal.  These are attached to plants with a twisting wire.  They aren't too bad, except the wires can girdle plant stems if not loosened periodically.  If you use these, make sure you press hard when writing on the plant name because in time, it can be hard to read the "engraving".

One couple in our local ARS chapter have beautiful tags made of cut up aluminum gutters.  They use a Brothers P Touch machine to create labels that have a glue-backing that sticks well to the aluminum.  The tags are long lasting and easy to read, but I don't have a supply of aluminum gutters around, nor do I have the right kind of saw to do the cutting, and even if I had both, I think I'd be too lazy to make them.  I do like getting plants from them though because in addition to growing lovely plants, their labels last for years.

Some people advocate putting a label underneath any plant that is going in the ground at planting time.  Either plastic or metal would be o.k. for this.  The idea is that if the above ground tag is lost and you can't remember what the plant is, you could, at least in theory, dig up the plant and check the label.  I do know people who "plant labels", but to me, this is one of those suggestions that sounds o.k. in theory, but is impractical in the real world.  Can you see yourself trying to dig up some big Rhodendron Loderi to find the label?  However, I do slide an extra label down the side of all of my potted plants as these tags are fairly accessible in a pinch

As a failsafe method, I try to keep a map of my garden beds showing roughly where I’ve planted  things.  This is useful as long as I take the time to update the map periodically.  For some reason, I find it easier to move a plant than to change the map record.  A couple of friends who are rock garden enthusiasts showed me their most recent method of keeping track of their plants.  They take digital photos of a bed, then using Power Point, they label all the plants in the image.  This seems like a good idea although there is still the issue of actually getting around to updating any changes.

One thing for sure though is to watch out that tags that are wrapped around Rhododendron stems do not get too tight.  Every now and then, take a tour around the garden and loosen up wires or ribbon-like tags.  Happy labeling!