Growing Together: Gardeners love to label plants, but which type is best?

Gardening columnist Don Kinzler writes, "Having a record of our plants’ identities can save their lives, or at least make their lives a lot healthier."

Plant labels can be ordered in a variety of styles and materials.
David Samson/The Forum

While clearing out the garden shed the other day, I found a box of dead batteries. I gave them away, free of charge.

Batteries might not be a high priority in a garden shed, but materials to label plants are. Gardeners love labeling their landscape plants and perennial flowers, but is it really that important to keep track of plant names?

Having a record of our plants’ identities can save their lives, or at least make their lives a lot healthier. For example, by archiving its name, if our Endless Summer hydrangea begins to flounder, knowing its identity is the first step in diagnosing its trouble.

When we buy plants, we can record their names in a journal and save the plant tags, which are both great ideas. But it’s also helpful to have a label directly by each shrub or perennial.

Visitors to our yards sometimes ask the identity of plants they find interesting. It’s also important to pass along cultivar names, if known, when we’re dividing perennials to share with others. Adding plant identity to photos posted on Facebook helps others obtain similar plants, if wanted.


If we asked 20 gardeners their favorite plant labeling method, we’d probably get 20 different answers. Garden supply catalogs have a wide assortment.

Labeling seed trays or plant pots is quite easy, if the label doesn’t need to last longer than a growing season. Plastic labels are effective, either purchased, or homemade from milk jugs. Even white plastic dinnerware can double as plant labels.

Which writing utensil works best on labels? North Dakota State University Horticulture Professor Neal Holland taught his students that pencil was often the longest-lasting instrument on most surfaces, and I’ve found that to be a wise suggestion.

Ballpoint pen washes or rubs away, and some markers fade quickly. Even fade-resistant markers seem to fade eventually when exposed to light. Pencil, although it might not be as visibly bright, tends to last on many surfaces, including plastic or metal.

An ordinary pencil can be longer lasting and more fade resistant than many permanent markers.
David Samson/The Forum

Why not just leave the tag on that comes with shrubs or perennials? If the tag is attached to branches or foliage, it can easily be lost or blown away.

Plastic garden center labels included in potted perennials might last a season or two, but many become brittle and break. I’ve found it helpful to remove plant tags and labels and save them in a special folder for future reference, and provide plants with a more permanent type of outdoor identification.

For most shrubs and perennials, a label placed in the ground near the plant provides a more permanent identification marker. For our own perennials and landscape plants, I locate all labels in the ground on the north side of plants, so I always know where to search if the label becomes hard to find. Labels also fade less on the north side of plants, versus in full sunshine.

What materials work best for long-lasting plant identification? The decision depends somewhat on whether we want to read the label at a standing distance, or whether the label is mostly for preserving the identity of the plant in which case it can be tucked discretely by the plant’s lower north side.


Besides ceramic or stone, metal garden labels are quite long-lasting. Zink or aluminum metal labels are easily inscribed with ordinary pencil, creating a label that will remain visible for many years. Many garden centers sell them, or they can be ordered online.

Choose pens and markers carefully. Even the most permanent of markers can fade from labels after a year or two. Paint pens can be tried, and their durability prolonged with a clear coat of polyurethane varnish or clear nail polish.

Label makers create easy-to-read adhesive stickers to attach to metal, wood or plastic, but must be chosen carefully. Laser labels reportedly remain readable for two to five years. Laser printers, rather than inkjet, are needed.

When creating outdoor labels, no matter the kind, I’ve found it helpful to write on both sides. If the printing becomes illegible on one side, the other might still be readable.

The 'Growing Together' Podcast

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at
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