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

website  blog

Rachel The Gardener

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