If you’re labeling plants, you’re not weeding the garden

Erin Schanen


As the garden comes back to life at what seems like a rather leisurely pace with the cool spring continuing, it’s that time of year when I rediscover plants I forgot all about. Others leave me puzzled, with no recollection of planting them and only guesses as to their identity.

There’s a simple solution to this problem — labels. But I’ve finally come to accept that I’m never going to be someone who is good at labeling plants. I cannot abide the plastic labels that come with plants. In my garden, the only time I use them is to mark a plant I’m unfamiliar with so I have information close at hand or plants I intend to create an official label for. Most of them end up serving as grave markers for plants that didn’t make it.

When I’m feeling particularly ambitious I create “permanent” labels using weatherproof labeling tape on galvanized plant markers. The last time that happened was at least a couple years ago so I’m a bit behind, but on the other hand several plants have died in that time so maybe I saved myself some trouble.

I used to be irritated when I would tour a garden where plants weren’t labeled. If I found something I loved — and I always do — I’d have to find the owner and then wait in line to ask her the name of that sort of low, bushy plant in the semi-shaded corner with the little purple flowers.

Some famous gardens eschew labels, including Chanticleer in Pennsylvania, where handmade boxes in each area hold plant lists in lieu of individually marked plants. They also include these lists on their website, which I refer to often.

Christopher Lloyd, the famous owner of England’s Great Dixter house and gardens, who I refer to with some frequency in this column, shared my disinterest in labeling plants. He wrote in 1987 that he once told a garden visitor who interrupted him while he was weeding to complain about the lack of labels in the garden that “If I was writing labels I shouldn’t be here weeding.”

Lloyd pointed out that labeling is particularly challenging in a mixed border such as Dixter’s famous long border because plants and their corresponding labels may be quite far from the edge, causing people to walk into the garden to read the label.

 “I do it myself in your garden, but I do not like to see tracks made to attractive plants in my own,” he wrote without any acknowledgement of irony.

 In my garden, the greatest challenge to labels, other than landing at the end of a very long to-do list, is the rake. Rakes are better at grabbing plant markers than they are at corralling leaves, which means that if you are fortunate enough to find a label in my garden there is only about a 50% chance that it has anything to do with the plant you found it next to.

So if you come to my garden, don’t be surprised if you don’t see many labels. I was busy weeding.



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