Garden Variety: Gardeners can avoid headaches by marking plants to start season

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Indoor or outdoor use can help determine what kinds of labels should be used for plants.

Have you ever looked at a plant in your landscape or garden and wished you had labeled it when you planted it? Or perhaps you know they are tomato plants, but have forgotten which varieties are which? Many gardeners share your plight. Labeling plants as they are planted can prevent forgotten names in the future, allowing you to purchase more of a desirable plant or variety or to share the information with other gardeners. Winter is a good time to create labels for existing plants and stock up on blanks for this spring’s plantings.

What kind of labels are preferred depends on whether the labels will be used indoors or outdoors, expected durability, cost, effort, and aesthetics. Commercially available plant labels are available in plastic, wood, stainless steel, copper, slate, and other materials. Do-it-yourselfers may prefer to paint rocks, pottery, or tile; use a variety of recycled materials, or try other materials such as aluminum tape.

Of the pre-made labels, plastic and wood are usually the least expensive. Both options are good for indoor plants or plants that will be grown outdoors for a single season such as vegetables and herbs. The simplest versions are like large popsicle sticks and pointed on one end to be inserted into the soil near the plant. Others are shaped like a T, with a wide top where the plant name can be written.

Sun exposure, moisture, and temperature extremes affect how long plastic and wood labels last. Variations in thickness, quality, and type of wood will also make a difference, but in general plan to replace these types of labels annually or after only a few seasons.

To write plant names on plastic and wood labels, use a special pencil called a grease pencil or a paint marker. A grease pencil uses colored wax like a crayon but is stronger. A paint marker is a marker that is filled with paint, making it easier to brush on readable letters. Regular permanent markers will last for a while, but the duration depends on the exposure of moisture and sunlight to the labels.

The next step up from plastic and wood are labels made from stainless steel or copper, typically with a strip of the material suspended at the top of a galvanized wire stake or between two wire stakes. Metal plant labels can be used for indoor or outdoor plants. They are considerably more durable than plastic and wood labels and should last several seasons. They are available in a variety of sizes and styles.

Metal plant labels are a little pricier than plastic and wood but are worth the extra cost if being used for trees, shrubs, perennials, and other plants that live for many seasons. Occasionally names may fade and need to be re-written, or a stake may get bent on a label that has been moved a few times.

To write on metal plant labels, a grease pencil or paint marker will work. With copper labels, the material is usually soft enough that even a regular pencil will leave an imprint in the metal, creating a more permanent label which may be enough. Tiny letter stamps could also be used to imprint plant names into the metal of the label.

Another common option is slate. Slate plant labels are durable for both indoor and outdoor settings and offer a high level of style. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are generally the most expensive of the commercially-available styles mentioned. However, they can be a really nice touch for a patio herb garden, container plantings, and special indoor plants.

Slate plant labels should be written on with chalk or chalk markers. If they will be used outside, look for ones that have a weather-resistant coating for increased durability.

For do-it-yourselfers or crafty gardeners, there a variety of options using simple and recycled materials. Painted rocks or pieces of tile are probably the most popular option. Small, smooth, flat rocks work best. These types of rocks are often sold for this purpose at garden centers and craft stores. Or, use broken pieces of ceramic pots or pieces of old tile.

Painted rocks or tile work for both indoor or outdoor plants. For outdoor plants, be sure to use paint that can withstand exposure to the elements and/or use a clear sealant over the paint to increase durability.

Another crafty option that works well for indoor plants is to paint pots or a section of a pot with chalkboard paint, then use chalk or chalk markers to write the plant names.

Other ideas for plant labels include imprinting letters into aluminum tape, writing names on wine corks and sticking them onto metal or wood stakes, using metal coat hangers as stakes to suspend labels, writing names on old wooden spoons, metal silverware, plastic silverware, cut strips of plastic (such as from milk jugs), wooden clothespins or pegs, and lids from steel cans.

Use of recycled materials really comes down to your imagination, what materials you have on hand, and how much effort you want to put into making the labels.

You can of course also use the plastic label that comes with the plant or the seed packet, but both of these options have a very short life outside in the weather. Consider them only for indoor and single-season plantings, and add a more robust label or find a way to protect the label if you can.

• Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.


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