The Importance of Labels by Rachel The Gardener

March 10, 2016

in Articles, General Interest

I won’t generally label plants at Veddw, not just because of the excessive work and the inevitability of mislabelling, but because for me it destroys the aesthetic of a garden. A bit like labelling all the colours on The Fighting Temeraire, maybe.

It was interesting to me that searching through Charles Hawes’ extensive catalogue of garden photographs I couldn’t find much to illustrate this piece apart from some nursery pictures. My guess is that publishable pictures of gardens on the whole don’t feature labels.

Many people like plant labels though, so here is their defence. By Rachel The Gardener – quite an interesting label itself.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon


Labels March 2016 Copyright Anne Wareham 009 Veddw

Some plants at Veddw are, rather randomly, labelled.


The Importance of Labels by Rachel The Gardener

Why do we label our own plants, in our own gardens? Well, I don’t know about you, but I work in several gardens, so I encourage my clients to label plants so that I don’t have to try to remember all their names. And why would I need to know their names? To give them the correct care, of course: and for herbaceous plants, the labels act as placeholders over the winter, so that I don’t accidentally disturb them, or try to plant bulbs too close to them while they are dormant.

This is all quite different from the labelling of plants in gardens which are open to the public, which is done far more for the benefit of the visitor than for the gardener.

Do visitors need to know the names of the plants? Silly question – visitors ALWAYS want to know the names of plants! If they think they know what it is, then they are happy to have their knowledge confirmed (“Told you so, Doris!” said the lady in the unfortunate slacks, triumphantly, to her elderly companion), and if they don’t know what it is, well, they want to be told.

Evolution Plants Copyright Charles Hawes _MG_8291

Labels at Evolution Plants

This is all very much from my point of view as a visitor – so what do people with “public” gardens think about labelling plants? To find out, I asked my fellow PGG members (Professional Gardeners’ Guild) and, interestingly, received several variations on the theme of “We consider ourselves a private garden that happens to open to the public, and as such, private gardens don’t need labels.”

Several members who choose not to label do, however, provide plant interpretation sheets, and plant lists, in their guide books, and some provide planting plans and text to read for a couple of seasons after a redevelopment: many of them said they will occasionally label a plant if they are getting multiple questions about it, but many actually state that they like people to ask, not least “to keep our hands in regarding plant names” or possibly just to torture the trainees.

Labels Kiftsgate 24th June 2013 163 copyright Anne Wareham

A Kiftsgate label

The curator at Abbotsbury subtropical gardens said “Many people want to know plant names and often put down ‘poor labelling’ as a negative on our visitor surveys.”

I read an excerpt from a book about Public Garden Management which spoke at length about “…the conflict between some team members who felt that plant labels detracted from the purity of a beautiful garden experience, whereas others felt that signage was critical at an educational institute…” Apparently there had been infighting at a particular site for many years on this topic, right up to the day they carried out a survey of visitors, and “the voice of the customer was unanimous across all groups, respondents felt that educational signs and plant labels would greatly enhance the visitor experience”.

So there you have it: like it or not, if you are open to the public, the public expect plant labels, and certainly in my opinion, labelling the plants is as essential as handing out a free map of the garden.

Epson 48704948 Chaumont, Copyright Charles Hawes

One way you could do it…

So why do so many gardens fail to label the plants?

The first and foremost reason I have been given when I asked this question – and trust me, I have asked this question many, many times – is “the visitors keep stealing them”.

Other reasons given include:-

Labels get picked up and moved, and an incorrect label is worse than no label.

Labels Dyffryn IMG_0013 Copyright Anne Wareham

Dyffryn label..


Birds pull them out and fling them about.

Visitors steal them as mementoes.

On deep beds, labels encourage visitors to step on the bed in order the read the label.

We don’t want to look like a botanical garden.

Too many labels looks cluttered and ugly.

(Actually, I can sympathise with that last point,  I’m sure we all hate the “graveyard” effect of hundreds of little plastic tags projecting forlornly at odd angles from the ground – this is particularly offensive early in the season, when the herbaceous plants are not yet active.)

These are all valid points, although no-one mentioned the amount of staff time it takes to check the plant, produce the label, and attach it, not to mention regular checking and replacing of broken, faded, moved and missing labels.

So what sort of labels can best resist the thieves? Those black t-shaped ones which push into the ground are very popular – they can be written on with white pens which are pretty permanent, but which can be rubbed off for re-use. Firm enough to resist bird dislodging, and big enough to foil all but the large-handbagged visitor.

Collection of Lithops from private collection of Barry Reid of Barrington copyright Charles Hawes Hill Nursery

Collection of Lithops from private collection of Barry Reid of Barrington Hill Nursery

Then there are the dangling engraved signs, often seen wired to the trees and shrubs of stately homes, often with the name of the garden included. Does this make them more, or less, nickable? It increases the souvenir value, I suppose, but reduces the “I have this plant at home and want a posh label for it” thieves, as their friends and neighbours will know where they stole it from. Unless that is the point?

The funniest answer to label thieves I have seen was a garden where they painted the plant names on hand-sized rocks. Not so easy to put that in your pocket, is it, missus?!

With the rise in camera phones, at least visitors can be encouraged – maybe by large signs at the ticket office? – to take photos of unknown plants, then return to the ticket office, or find a gardener, for the answer.

labels March 2016 Copyright Anne Wareham 008

More Veddw label.

I suppose, taking technology a step further, there will come a time when each bed has a fringe of those weird QR labels, which visitors can “read” via their mobile phones. Scanning the code takes them to a webpage with all the plant details: an ideal method for a bed that needs to be updated seasonally, perhaps.

So what is the answer? Put numbered labels on the plants, and offer a printed handout with a key to the names? Batsford Arboretum do this, they charge £15 for the plant list: a nice little earner.

Hand out white plastic labels and a small pencil to visitors on arrival, so they can copy the names down for themselves, as Beth Chatto does?

Labels March 2016 Copyright Anne Wareham 007


Accept the constant drain of having to relabel the plants?
Or just refuse to label, maintain “the purity of a beautiful garden experience “ and risk having disappointed visitors?

Rachel the Gardener

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Rachel The Gardener

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Diana Studer May 29, 2016 at 8:08 pm

I do label plants that confuse me. WHICH Erica is that, no idea without a label. Pots of dormant bulbs – useless without a label – is anyone living in that pot?

Also I list on my blog (for each named bed) what I plant, as, when and where in the bed – when the plants go in. With a picture to remind me just how small it was ‘a year ago’. SO much easier that the unused notebook lost in a drawer somewhere.

David Feix April 4, 2016 at 12:33 am

No labels left showing in private client’s gardens. When on tour or giving a talk, I will write up a list of plants as a handout. I will often bury a plant label at time of planting, and in container plants, I do like to tuck in a label buried in the soil.

Now in a botanic garden, I expect to see the garden well labeled, but too often see mislabeled or entirely missing labels here in California, for all the usual reasons beyond the gardener’s control.

Rachel the Gardener March 16, 2016 at 5:02 pm

Really interesting comments, thanks to everyone who contributed an opinion: I think if I had to draw a conclusion, it would be that everyone wants labels when they are visiting a garden, and no-one wants them in their own garden.

One of my PGG colleagues has just told me that this year, they have decided to label all the plants permanently with numbers, then have hand-drawn chalkboards around the garden with the plant names – this way, the labels can be small and less intrusive. Which seems like a nice compromise, don’t you think?

annewareham March 16, 2016 at 5:16 pm

(Errrr …no….! Xxxx)

Katherine Crouch March 14, 2016 at 9:05 pm

alas, the visit to East Lambrook Manor showed they had strayed from their original neat policy of ground level flat labels, and now all kinds have crept in. They must be more for the convenience of the gardeners than for the information to the public as these will all disappear under a sea of geraniums in 5 weeks. Pictures on Facebook.

Jack Wallington March 13, 2016 at 7:23 pm

Go labels!

I am massively pro-labels on plants. If nice ones are chosen I personally feel they can improve the look of gardens.

An alternative though would be a detailed and accurate plan to hand out to people who are interested, while leaving the aesthetic of the garden to be enjoyed.

Annoné Butler March 13, 2016 at 5:21 pm

I don’t label plants in the garden. I agree that it looks ugly. I do remember most plant names but if I forget I tend not to worry. I do however use a lot of labels in pots when growing seedlings – sweet peas, veg and the like. Never seem to have enough…..

Walt March 13, 2016 at 12:22 pm

I think it depends on the type of garden you are visiting personally, if it’s a botanical garden then all plants should be labelled but for the privately run gardens it seems reasonable not to label. We visit National Trust properties some plants are labelled but you can guarantee that the “unusual” plant of interest won’t have a label. The is a shrub at Glendurgan in Cornwall that attracts butterflies by the dozen, does that have a label? No! It had not occurred to me that people steal labels!

Joff Elphick March 12, 2016 at 8:58 pm

I seem to remember that at Dixter, where plants aren’t labelled ( or at least weren’t) Christo asked the enquirer if they had a note pad. No note pad-no plant name; he knew they would have forgotten by the time they made it to the car park!

annewareham March 12, 2016 at 10:56 pm

I never understood this. When people ask me,I also write the name down for them,so they can see how it’s spelt.

Katherine Crouch March 14, 2016 at 9:02 pm

well he was known for being pretty contrary!

Charles Hawes March 12, 2016 at 7:05 pm

As a photographer I am always grateful for labels as it saves me a lot of hassle. As a garden visitor I hate labels as they are invariably intrusive and detract from the overall pleasure of the borders. I don’t mind them on trees so much.

Radojka in Canada March 11, 2016 at 6:55 pm

What an interesting article. I can agree AND disagree with all the reasons why to label or not to label. Our garden is private and not open to the public, with the exception of visits by local garden clubs or special plant interest societies. I would prefer not to label because it does take time, can be unsightly and my penmanship is horrid. However, I do label, discretely, less common plants to protect them from my husband who may confuse them with weeds.

When I visit gardens, public or private, I find smart phone invaluable. I the plant is not labelled, I simply show the picture to one of the staff and ask about it and note the name in the “notes”.

Pat Webster March 11, 2016 at 4:51 pm

The Walled Garden at Scampston has a multi-page plant list; they also label their plants. When I visited last September, everything was so exuberant that finding the labels was difficult but they were there, you simply had to search. I liked this combination of printed info and (mostly hidden) labels next to the plants.

I don’t label anything in my own garden — the sight of tags or stick, however attractive, would take too much from the aesthetics of the garden. But mine is a private garden, open occasionally to the public, so I can do what I want without any qualms.

John Lord March 11, 2016 at 2:02 pm

We have 2 acres of gardens open all year around to the public. We’re in the lucky position of not having to charge an entrance fee as our income comes from our garden centre, which you have to pass through to get to the gardens – and if you don’t pay the piper you can hardly call the tune. We don’t label our plants due to time constraints as we have such a huge variety of plants on display and that’s our story and we’re sticking to it. (one of the great advantages of being in the garden trade is that you have access to any amount of plants at very agreeable trade prices). This lack of labeling does annoy people from time to time, and we, kind of like the politicians, make promises that we will get around to labeling our plants when we find the right ‘system’. Alas, this system has never found us yet.
And now, thanks to the above article and comments below it, we have the perfect excuse for never having to go down the labeling road. We just tell people to take photos of plants on their smart phones and bring them to us for identification. What could possibly go wrong?

Pete Cooper March 11, 2016 at 4:23 pm

You’re fortunate to have 2 acres of Display Garden to show hows plants will look as they mature, but surely having the plants labelled and described is a cheap/easy way to encourage visitors to make purchases from your on site nursery? Isn’t that the reason ( and to provide propagating material) for having an associated walk-around garden? Why not go one step further and providing pen-on a string and a clip boarded shopping form to note down the names as they stroll? (seems to work at Ikea)

Penny lymn Rose March 11, 2016 at 9:59 am

Like Katherine I put in labels with new plants until I hope I will be able to remember them and where they are. I really don’t like to see them in the garden however so periodically I go round and remove them all. Then I have lots of things I have to guess at!.

I do like to find out what new things are when I am looking round somewhere so I appreciate labelling then. I think this is something where it’s not possible to please everyone so you might as well please yourself.

Helen Gazeley March 11, 2016 at 9:59 am

I would say more, but it’s difficult to type from down here on the floor, where I’m still horizontal from the shock. FIFTEEN POUNDS??! What is it – bound and signed by the author?

Katherine Crouch March 10, 2016 at 9:26 pm

The labels in my own garden – useful when a plant is new to me. Then it gets lost and I can’t remember it. I now double-label new perennials, pencil on cheap white labels, one buried full depth by the plant so I will re-aquaint myself with it when I dig it up for splitting or remove it’s cold dead rotting carcase, and one to learn, until it gets lost.

I resolved to put all new plant purchases in a smartly bound Gardeners’ Year Book. It is still in it’s original wrapping on the bookshelf 12 years later……next year…..

The labels in public gardens – annoying when haphazardly deployed. The only place I have admired the labeling is at East Lambrook Manor during snowdrop season. Passing near there tomorrow so if I can take a photo and Anne can post it, you will see what I mean

Rachel the Gardener March 11, 2016 at 8:20 am

“cold dead rotting carcase” ha! ha! That me laugh – we’ve all been there!

Julieanne Porter (@GwenfarsGarden) March 10, 2016 at 4:00 pm

This is such an interesting topic. I’m someone who is always looking for plant labels in public gardens so I know what the specific variety of a plant is that I’m looking at, usually one of which I’m enamoured. If a label is next to a plant, I take a photo of that as well as the plant (sticking to the path!), so I remember its name when I get home. If there is no label, sometimes I will take a photo & ask someone, but not everyone has that confidence. Also, sometimes I have lots I’d like to identify(!) but don’t feel it’s ok to take up that much time of a staff member etc to fill me in. I guess I do see public gardens as ‘educational’ as well as a place of beauty. So to me, labels, discretely placed, are invaluable for identification and learning.

I do understand the aesthetics of not labelling and yes, there are times when there are too many lables, not always in the right place either, that detract from what you are viewing. And I can understand that this could be a lot of work for a garden’s staff to manage. In this case, plant lists are really helpful. I’m happy to pay £1-£2 for a decent plant list and this might be a way forward for many public gardens. This would at least cover costs and help raise a bit for the garden. Do Batsford really charge £15 for theirs? That’s appalling, unless it’s in a nice book!

I guess there is also a question of how ‘public’ is a public garden? It’s understandable that at a Botanical Garden labels are clearly shown, but as mentioned above, I see Anne’s point about how labelling at Veddw could destroy the aesthetic of a garden. In this case it’s a private garden that is open to the public, but do the visiting public understand this difference? Maybe this is where plant lists would be of use?

This article has made me really think about what I expect when I visit a public garden. It’s made me question where do I draw the line myself, between labelling & learning, and not labelling and just enjoying (even critiquing!) the form and beauty of the garden I’m visiting. I look forward to reading other’s comments to see what they think.

annewareham March 10, 2016 at 4:30 pm

(I don’t have the staff for plant listing, Julieanne! #none)

Julieanne Porter (@GwenfarsGarden) March 10, 2016 at 4:42 pm

I can understand that. Now I need to remember it. We gardeners can be greedy for info, forgetting all the work required to produce the info!

annewareham March 10, 2016 at 5:18 pm

And I bet you’re more thoughtful than most!

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