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Labeling Methods for Seedlings and Garden Plants: What works, what doesn’t

By Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologistMarch 12, 2009
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Garden labels help you keep track of seedlings under lights and in winter sowing containers. They’re also invaluable for helping you remember what you planted where when plants are dormant as well as for keeping track of special cultivars. But they are worthless if you can’t read them…

Gardening picture

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. black and white labels stuck into tray of small dianthus plantsYou 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.plastic garden markers with holes made by the pictured 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. 

black pots with Dymo plastic labels with raised lettersEngraving may be the most permanent method of putting information on garden markers.  You've probably seen engraved metal or plastic labels at botanical gardens. handheld Dymo Label Buddy labeling machineI 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.

 silver writing shows up well on clear plastic container filled wtih dark potting mixBlack writing on the side of a cut-down milk jug container

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.

pencil lettering still clear at edge of metal tag with faded plastic tape labelA 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. Sharp non-fading lettering of laser printed label on zinc garden marker 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!

 partly faded tape label on garden marker by spring sprouts of astilbe

Move your mouse over the images and links above for additional information.

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.

 

 


 


  About Jill M. Nicolaus  
Jill M. NicolausBetter known as "Critter" on DG, Jill lives in Frederick, MD, where she tries to fit as many plants as possible into a suburban back yard. The birds are mobbing our feeders lately, so Sunshine Girl and I have a job keeping the Flyby Cafe' open for business! This year, we put out a special feeder just for the squirrels, filled with a seed & corn blend. We still see them acrobatically snatching food from the other feeders, but at least now they let the birds get a beak in edgewise! (Images in my articles are from my photos, unless otherwise credited.)

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Good phicks 3 30 Apr 1, 2009 10:44 PM
Copper blinds quiltygirl 1 14 Mar 25, 2009 11:22 PM
lead in old miniblinds cagnes 1 13 Mar 24, 2009 10:02 PM
lead and food containers. kittshouse 1 10 Mar 20, 2009 10:52 PM
Nicely written, thank you cheerpeople 1 10 Mar 18, 2009 4:27 PM
Great article, great ideas! adinamiti 30 165 Mar 18, 2009 4:26 PM
Works for me DianeEG 5 31 Mar 18, 2009 4:25 PM
Aluminum markers DarkEarth 1 23 Mar 18, 2009 12:13 AM
cleaning labels dparsons01 3 48 Mar 17, 2009 1:10 AM
If only... quiltjean 1 17 Mar 17, 2009 12:27 AM
Question re: miniblinds & lead hicotton 1 24 Mar 17, 2009 12:26 AM
Labels from jugs NCplantsman 1 28 Mar 17, 2009 12:24 AM
They all blow away! pamsaplantin 9 136 Mar 16, 2009 10:24 PM
Labels onewish1 10 111 Mar 16, 2009 9:12 AM
A thank you note BRBeth 3 44 Mar 13, 2009 5:38 PM
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