Gardening 101

What is That Plant? Where is That Plant? Mishaps in the Garden

Garden scene

I lose plants—and I always have. It’s my fault, of course, because I’m a lazy plant labeler but since I have become a passionate devotee of sustainable roses, the need to label my plants has reached a crisis.

Any rosarian worth their salt knows exactly which varieties dwell in their garden—it’s a badge of honor. While I’m not a rosarian, I like to feel as though I could pass their inspection. Consequently, it’s imperative to know the names of my roses.

I also lose plants. When UPS delivers a plant order, I quickly put the plants in the ground by the scientific method known as, “If there is a space, fill it.” I envy gardeners who have a plan and those gardeners who know exactly where a certain plant should go. Instead I divide my plants between those that require sun and those that require shade and fill up my empty spaces. And this is where I lose them because I forget where I have planted them. I never said I was a smart gardener.

In the midst of winter gloom, I am inclined to place my plant orders without much thought put into it. The good thing is that I religiously keep the invoices so I can look back to see exactly what I have ordered. Looking over my latest list I wonder where I planted Clematis ‘Sapphire Indigo’. How on earth can one possibly lose a clematis? To give me credit this clematis only reaches a height of 18 inches so it isn’t readily apparent. I have no idea if this plant is dead or alive because for the life of me I cannot remember where I situated it.

I did have a pleasant surprise recently. Twenty-five nameless bulbs suddenly appeared around the garden—and I had no idea what they were. Fortunately I had a list of the bulbs I had ordered and by process of elimination, I figured out that they were Galtonia candicans, a bulb with which I had no previous experience.

This spring I planted what I thought was a charming arrangement of Heuchera and Rohdea japonica—only to have an indignant hosta and fern reappear to claim their turf. Plant on top of a dormant hosta and that hosta will resurface to disrupt the harmony you have painstakingly created.

Now there is a solution to all these garden predicaments: The diligent gardener knows to label their plants.

I have used every type of labeling system under the sun and most of them don’t work. A Sharpie will stain your clothes forever but its message on a metal label bleaches out from the sun. There are special garden markers but a lot of them are messy with tips so thick that it’s impossible to get the name to fit. The special garden labelers zip out cool looking names on tape but the tape is unreadable after one season. At one point I bought 500 plastic knives thinking I could put the taped names on the handle, only to have the sun turn the handles so brittle that they broke in half.

I have now settled on metal labels that are perpendicular to the ground. I have two markers, which while not perfect—none give you the control of the marvelous Sharpie—they do manage to convey the name of the plant.

The next problem to solve is to intelligently situate the label. Plants grow, especially during their third growing season. Plant Phlox paniculata ‘John Fanick’ or ‘Robert Poore’ and chances are you’ll end up with a buried label. The terrible fact about plant labeling is that you’ll have to retag plants—typically this is not a one shot deal.

Planting is a lot more fun than labeling but look at it this way: Labeling is a way of protecting your plants. It will prevent you from planting over dormant plants and it might even help you to find plants. Perhaps if I had labeled my clematis, I’d still have it for I would have watered it and nurtured it. So label your plants: As Martha would say, “It’s a good thing.”


A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener.

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