When we make labels for our plants, we still want to be able to read them in six weeks, or even six years. Exposure to outdoor conditions of sun and rain can fade some types of labels faster than you'd think. "Permanent" markers may be fine for labeling plants on an indoor light shelf, but you'll rue the day you thought a regular Sharpie® marker would be just the thing for labeling your winter sowing containers. Together with my own trial and error experience, suggestions from fellow DGers have given me a good idea of what works--and what doesn't.
Plastic labels are easy to find in catalogs and garden centers and are a big improvement over wooden popsicle sticks, which tend to get moldy and unreadable in moist seedling trays. You can also improvise plastic labels by using disposable silverware, writing on the plastic handle or the blade of a plastic knife. Small markers can be cut from plastic containers such as yogurt cups. Some people prefer to use food grade materials to ensure against contamination by lead and other substances.
Mini-blind vanes make excellent garden markers. I pick them up at the thrift shop or discount store. I cut little labels for containers, longer ones for garden veggies. Flexible mini-blind labels also work well for burying with bulbs or under perennials as extra insurance in case the above-ground label is lost. If you need labels to fasten to a branch or stalk, punch a hole in a section of mini-blind or melt a hole in a plastic tag using a hot nail or old soldering iron.
Metal garden markers will generally last for several years. My favorites come from EON Industries, but a quick search will turn up many manufacturers and a wide range of sizes and styles. If you write directly on the metal tags, you may want to purchase replacement tags with your markers so they can be re-used. Before applying a sticky label to the tag, give the metal surface a quick wipe with rubbing alcohol.
Stones and ceramic tiles could also be painted for markers that are both useful and decorative. For ceramics, you can find special paints that can either be sealed or fired in your home oven to make them permanent.
Engraving may be the most permanent method of putting information on garden markers. You've probably seen engraved metal or plastic labels at botanical gardens. I haven't had a lot of luck controlling my Dremel rotary tool to write legibly on zinc markers, but I've considered purchasing laser-engraved labels for favorite plants. I've used a ballpoint pen to put information on copper tags for my fruit trees, however, and five years later I can still read the indented names. DeBaggio's Herb Farm & Nursery uses a Dymo label maker in their display garden. The raised letters on the heavy vinyl tape hold up well, even if the color of the label fades. Dymo also makes an industrial label embosser that uses metal tapes.
Pens and markers should be chosen carefully for garden use. Although regular "permanent" Sharpie markers tend to fade, Sharpie does make an industrial marker with ink that resists UV radiation and high temperatures. I've used an industrial Sharpie for several years to mark mini-blind labels and winter sowing jugs. I've also used a silver metallic Sharpie to write on black cell packs and nursery pots. With both these markers, the writing is still legible a year later.
Oil-based paint pens are also good for labels that resist fading. Deco brand pens seem especially good and can be found in most craft stores. For even more durability, you can apply a clear coat of polyurethane or even clear nail polish on top of the lettering.
A soft lead pencil works well on both plastic and metal markers and can last for several seasons. Darker labels are easier to read, but writing in pencil is a good backup method.
Label makers are marketed for garden use by manufacturers such as Brother, Dymo, and others. Some label makers have little keypads for entering letters, and others can be connected to your computer for easier use. With any of these label makers, the best tapes to use are the plastic ones. Blue and yellow plastic tapes are reported to fade the least. In my very sunny garden, however, plastic tape labels were barely legible after two years. My Dymo Letra Tag has been re-tasked for indoor use.
Computer-printed labels have proved to be my most successful labeling method to date. Avery brand "clear laser labels" printed in black have been holding up in my sunny garden for two years now, and a friend has some five year old labels that are just fine. The 5660 size fits my zinc garden markers perfectly. You do need a laser rather than an ink jet printer, but you could also go to a copy center and use their printer for a small per-sheet fee.
Label, mark, and repeat. Redundancy is good. Write in pencil on the back of your metal tag as well as putting a sticky label on the front. Put a plant marker in your propagation container, but also write on the side or bottom of the containers itself in case the marker gets misplaced. Add a nice label for easy identification of a garden plant, but also bury a mini-blind label with the root ball, where you can find it when you dig and divide.
Whatever methods you use, labels and markers are invaluable for knowing what is where in your garden and containers. In addition to plant names and cultivars, I like to include the source of plants on my labels. Many of my plant markers have a DG name on them, which makes my garden very special to me!
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I appreciate the photos of label making methods shared by Herbie43 (Dymo label buddy) and Texasrockgarden (plastic tags holed by soldering iron). All oher photos by Jill Nicolaus.
Thank you to all the DGers who have shared their labeling methods over the years on the Winter Sowing, Cottage Gardening, and Propagation forums.
I'd like to particularly thank Francesco DeBaggio and LariAnn for information on the durability of Dymo embossed labels and to thank Happy_Macomb for introducing me to my favorite clear laser labels.