The Importance of Being Labeled

A plant label at the Derwood Demo Garden, showing scientific and common names, and potential culinary uses

Have any of these happened to you? (They have to me.)

  • You sow some Very Important Seeds in a flat or container, and don’t mark them in any way, because they are Very Important and of course you will never forget what they are. Next day: what were those?
  • You transfer some seedlings into larger pots, put the pots into a tray, and decide that it’s only necessary to mark the row since the seedlings are all the same variety (the next row is another variety, also marked). Something happens: a shift in the fabric of the universe, a decision about how the pots fit under the lights, a cat. You no longer know which pots are which.
  • You sow some seeds directly in your garden, and because you’ve seen other people do it, you stick the empty seed packet on a stake at the end of the row. It is a dark and stormy night. The seed packet blows away.
  • You transplant seedlings into your garden and put the proper labels next to each plant. Sun and rain do their work; one day, you look at the label and it is blank. Which tomato is which? Help!
  • Your flower beds become full of those little plastic sticks which look lonely and sad in the wintertime. Small children, animals, and Mother Nature move them around at will.

Let’s talk about labeling!

We’re all busily planting our gardens now that it is finally warm enough, so it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the importance of labeling. (Back in March when we were starting seeds would have been a good time too, but never let it be said that I consider matters in a timely fashion.) But labeling, you say – how restrictive, how limiting! People shouldn’t be labeled, so why should we tell plants they can’t be whatever they want to be? Well, a) genetics, b) they can’t talk back, c) your garden is one place you get to be in control. Up to a point. But certainly knowing which plant is which is mostly not beyond us. We all have labeling accidents (the time I had to brake hard, driving to the demo garden, and all my labeled pots of cucumber and melon seedlings fell onto the floor of the car and lost their labels, and I ended up having to give them away to MGs as Mystery Cucurbits, comes to mind). But we can all up our game, too.

I’ll start with why and how we label in a demonstration garden, and then go on to why it’s useful in home gardens. A demo garden, like other public gardens, exists to show visitors what plants grow well in a region and therefore what they might like to try at home. Not all related plants look the same, behave the same, or work well in a particular climate, so it’s important to distinguish, sometimes to the level of a species or subspecies, and sometimes down to a variety or cultivar.

Most public gardens will have labels showing, at the least, a plant’s scientific name and common name. Common names are easier to relate to, but can be applied to multiple plant species and therefore be confusing. Latin is the universal language of gardening, which is why, speaking very little Italian, I still felt at home touring the world’s first botanic garden, the Orto Botanico in Padua, a few years ago, where I took this photo of a familiar, carefully designated plant:

2014-10-10 padua potato
The sign provides the potato’s Latin name, family, continent of origin, and function (“food”)

Which brings up a topic near to my heart: the unfair distinction between ornamental and food plants in public labeling. Food plants deserve Latin names too! For one thing, it’s useful to know how they are related, because those in the same family have similar pest and disease problems, and may require similar growing conditions (although potatoes and tomatoes don’t, so this is not universal).

At Derwood, we use cheaper plastic labels for our annual plants, including most vegetables, because what we plant often varies from year to year and season to season. Our resident labeling expert, MG LeeAnne Gelletly, works very hard providing labels for all parts of the garden.


IMG_4389    IMG_4387

She uses a more informal, hand-lettered style for annuals, whereas the garden labeling team has generally made more durable, computer-printed labels for perennials. Some public gardens use higher-quality, more expensive labels – or colorful, funky ones; it all depends on their purpose and style.

I like how this fancy label has not entirely replaced a temporary one
es signs
Colorful signs painted by kids at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA
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The attractive, informal, yet durable style used in Monticello’s vegetable garden

These days, you will even see QR codes on a lot of public garden labels, linking visitors to websites where they can find more information.

So how does all this relate to what we’re doing in our home gardens? Of course most of us aren’t trying to educate visitors (except possibly along the lines of DO NOT EAT: POISONOUS), and we know what a squash looks like, and that there’s a bunch of echinacea there and some roses over here, and maybe we don’t care to be more specific. Which is fine. But I support the idea of accurate labeling, whether it’s in the realm of indoor seed-starting, direct seeding in the garden, or putting in transplants; whether it’s the vegetable garden or the ornamental beds. Here are some reasons:

  • If some of your plants die, you need to know which ones. Were you counting on that sauce tomato? You won’t know whether it was the one that croaked until the survivors fruit.
  • Hot pepper or sweet one? Sometimes they look alike. Surprise!
  • Um, which was the winter squash? When do I harvest this guy?
  • Yes, I have planted two kinds of seeds in the same place. Have you?
  • Yes, I have also transplanted a perennial plant in the fall into the same spot where a spring ephemeral is lurking. Ditto bulbs.
  • Let’s face it, none of us have enough spare memory to keep track of variety names. But they are useful to know in case we want to buy another of the same plant.

I do have a few hints to throw at you, as well. These are mostly about annuals (vegetables in particular) because my ornamental labeling game is poor. I think the solution in ornamental beds is really to make maps, because labels that come with plants, informative as they often are, don’t last and look awful after a while, though I find them useful in the beginning if only to remind myself which plants will need the most watering while they settle in. Those maps: I keep meaning to make them. Meanwhile I save the labels in a file indoors. But otherwise:

  • Label from the beginning, in whatever way works best for you. Have a system and stick to it.
  • If you are transplanting from seed-starting flats into bigger pots, label each pot individually. (And if you have to move them, stabilize them in the car.)
  • If you use clever codes and abbreviations for variety names, make sure you remember what they mean.
  • Some people label the outside of the pot, which is a good method for plant sales, but means you have to create another label when the plant goes into the ground.
  • Use a outdoor permanent marker for writing on plastic labels. “Sharpie” is not enough. “Industrial Sharpie” holds up against weather. There are other brands too: check their claims.
  • Small wooden labels don’t last well in the garden (nor does the writing on them), but they do make a good addition to mulch. Plastic labels can be reused for a while, but then they break and get lost in the soil where they do no good.
  • Don’t use seed packets to mark rows unless you are prepared to glue or staple them on. Even so they fade and rip. Also, it makes you feel you need to empty the packet when you don’t.
  • Please be clever, inventive, and artistic in labeling! And use just the amount of distinctive plant information that works for you.

Enjoy your garden planting and labeling!


By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Labeled

  1. deborah bacharach May 7, 2018 / 7:22 am

    Fabulous article! Laughed out loud and I don’t do that often enough.

  2. Susan Schluederberg May 8, 2018 / 9:20 am

    Labeling is a chronic problem in personal; as well as MG demo gardens. Tried & true suggestions welcome, but please be more specific as to brands & sources so it is easy for us to follow-through with your advice! (You can always add disclaimers to dispel claims of favoritism.)

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