The challenges of labelling plants

Labelling plants at RHS Garden Hyde Hall is a more in-depth, precise undertaking than you might think...

Over the last couple of weeks, with the help of my volunteers, I have been putting out new engraved labels in the Dry Garden to replace old and broken labels from the original planting of 2001. While we are doing this task, it is also a good opportunity to check the condition and number of plants in order to update the database.

A clump of Lavandula showing its label to the sideSo, there we are with one bucket full of new labels and another to collect up the temporary labels, plus one clipboard holding the bed plan and another with a printed list of the plants in the order they were logged. As we work through the list, we face dilemmas such as what angle to face the label for visitors to read, or whether to place a label in the middle of a clump of plants or at the side...

For areas heavily planted with plant labelling shrubs, perennials and bulbs it is a case of positioning the label so that it is labelling the correct plant. In some cases we might not see the actual plant, or an old label might be missing, and in these cases we always refer to the bed plan to ascertain where the plant is situated. We also have to bear in mind how the plants will grow next season as they have a tendency to smother their own label which we have to rescue and reposition again so that it is visible to visitors.

The size of label has already been determined at the bed logging stage of record keeping. We generally use a size E3, which is 8.5cm x 5.2cm (3in x 2in) (see picture left), with a 17.5cm (7in) length aluminium stem for plants that are near the border edge as in Bergenia cordifolia ‘Purpurea’ and use a larger E2 size, which is 10.5cm x 6.9cm (4in x 3in) with a 23.5cm (9in) aluminium stem for plants further back in the border. For those plants situated in the middle of a border we attach their label to a long aluminium stake so that the label can be read above the foliage (picture below).

A clump of Helichrysum showing its plant label placed in the middleTo plant the labels successfully, a hole has to be made with a long aluminium stake – the best tool to drive through the stones and soil beneath, which can be very hard during dry conditions. This makes it easier to put the labels in without bending the stems. The engraved labels will appreciate a good start to life as, not only will they have to endure the rain, frost, freezing temperatures, wind and sun for years, but also booted feet both large and small can destroy them in seconds. 

On our bed list we record the overall condition of the plants, whether good, fair or poor, and this can depend on factors such as one or two bulbs remaining from an original mass planting, they could have died out or have been overshadowed by a shrub that has grown to its full size over the years.

We also record the number of plants and make a note of any damaging pests or diseases. In some cases, especially with bulbs, we may have to revisit the bed at different times of year to check that they have appeared and flowered. A reminder is noted on the bed list as a spring or summer watch. Once finished it is rewarding to look back at the bed to see lots of lovely new shiny labels in their homes.

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Get the kids involved and have fun making your own plant labels.

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.