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Label It or Lose It

A salvia or rose by another name may not smell as sweet, so use markers to help you remember just what is where in garden.

April 12, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

It happens all the time when visitors are quizzing me about the garden.

"It's a--" and then I can't remember the name of a favorite plant that I know like the names of my own children. That's what plant labels are for. They're like garden cue cards. A quick peek at the label can avoid a mental fumble.

A good label would have saved me the embarrassment of writing about a great new salvia that I called Salvia sinaloensis when it was actually Salvia chiapensis, both named after Mexican states but very different plants.

They can also tell you when it was planted, in case you want to repeat some fortuitous timing or figure out how old a plant is. A label can even tell where the plant came from, should you need to get another.

Labels are becoming absolutely essential as more and more unusual and unheard-of plants show up at nurseries, frequently without common names. Should you need to replace one or get another, it helps to know that it's a Lessingia filaginifolia 'Silver Carpet,' not just "that tough, low-growing gray plant."

A sampling of plants from my new front garden will give you an idea of how hopeless trying to remember all these new names can be:

Arctostaphylos pajaroensis 'Paradise,' Rhodophila bifida, Sideritis syrica,Stachys coccinea, Cotula reticulata, Schizostylus coccineus, Orthosantos multifera, Daboecia cantabria 'Atropurpea' and Poa costineata.

As I said, hopeless!

Labels are important even with less adventuresome plants. When a tomato you're experimenting with ripens extra early, you can check the label to see when it was planted. Maybe you put it in earlier than usual. If not, you've found yourself a tomato that ripens early in your garden, and you know the name.

There's been an explosion of plant labels at nurseries and especially in garden catalogs these last few years. There are now labels of every conceivable shape, type, material and size, even color.

There are vintage-looking designs that could go into a Victorian cottage garden and labels you can buy by the hundreds that are not too different from the one that came with the plant.

They're made of copper, zinc, plastic, wood and even stainless steel. Some you can tie to the plant, most are put in the ground at its base, but a few have their own elegant little garden stakes or legs that hold the label high enough to read easily. A prize rose may deserve nothing less.

You can't count on the label that came with the plant. There's been a trend recently to use computer labels that don't last, or labels that are large or colorful--a good selling tool but an eyesore in the garden. Some nurseries don't even use labels anymore but simply write the name on the side of the can.

The only thing close to a bulletproof nursery label are the ones that come on roses, often made of metal with embossed names and little wires that attach it to a cane. They last at least until you prune off that cane.

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With vegetables and seed-grown annuals, a time-honored practice is simply to skewer the seed packet on a stake and let it be the label, but by the time your vegetables are ripe, that seed packet has probably turned from paper back to pulp.

One company has improved on this practice by making little plastic clips that hold the seed packet.

Another has taken it one step further, making clear plastic boxes on short stakes that you can put the label inside, so even after a few months of rain or irrigation, you can still read the packet.

Wood labels are another traditional approach, one that is pleasantly appropriate in a garden setting, but they last only months before they rot.

But I confess that on more than one occasion, I have looked for a wood label and found only half of it, usually the top half with something like "Tomato C . . ." with the all-important variety missing. Was it a 'Celebrity' or a 'Champion' that tasted so good last summer?

Stainless steel labels solve this problem and will probably outlast your house, though the writing on them most likely won't. Zinc is nearly as durable.

The pen or pencil you use to write with on a label is often the label's undoing. There are some new pens made for writing on labels that are supposed to last and last. Some are paint pens that use enamels instead of inks. One is even guaranteed not to fade.

The stainless steel markers, for instance, come with a "fade-proof paint-pen." Other writing instruments are variations on the felt marker. I can tell you that ordinary felt markers, even those called permanent, will fade, often within a year.

Of course, you can use an ordinary soft pencil. I've found that the pencils we use in editing, Berol Draughting 314, last longer than regular felt pens on plastic labels.

You can get around the pen or pencil dilemma by impressing the name on some labels. Write on a copper label with an ordinary ballpoint pen, and while the ink won't stick, the name will become permanently embossed.

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