Lovely Labels & September Stuff to Do in the Garden

Ron Kushner, for the Shuttle

Labeling plants in your garden can be controversial, mainly regarding the size of the plants in relation  to the size of the labels. Vegetables, perennials, shrubs or trees can be labeled in an inconspicuous manner, but in rock gardens and areas full of low-growing plants, labels are always very visible. 

Some feel that labels spoil the natural look of the garden setting. Others complain that the labels themselves create a “congested” landscape, in some ways resembling a tiny cemetery.

My entire garden is labeled and I would have it no other way. As a matter of fact, when I visit a public garden without labels I feel cheated. 

Whenever a plant or seedling goes in the ground, my initial label is planted at the same time. I have tried all types of labels of various materials, such as wood, plastic and metal. For my purposes, two-part metal labels, readily available in garden centers, work best. I use an indelible pen with black ink, slide the horizontal label onto the two-prong stake and install the label somewhere in front of the plant.

I called this labeling “initial” because it is not intended to be the permanent label. Once a plant makes it through an entire winter and summer season satifactorily, it gets a professionally engraved plastic arboretum-style label. (I get mine from These labels are horizontal, approximately 1 inch deep by 3 inches wide, with the plant name showing white against the label’s black background. The label is attached to the metal stake that is pushed into the soil so that label is just a bit higher than the top of the mulch. It looks nice, is not obtrusive and lasts, if not forever, certainly longer than the gardener installing it.

Some gardeners who use metal labels use a No. 2 pencil rather than an indelible black pen. The writing does not seem to fade away as the indelible pen will do in time. My problem with the pencil is that I can’t read it from any distance and I need to crawl almost on top of the label to make it out. And since I replace my metal labels after a year, I have not found the fading of the black ink to be much of a problem. To reuse metal labels, the “indelible” ink can be removed by rubbing the label with your fingers and a bit of machine oil such as WD40.

Some gardeners get engraved metal labels, which are extremely long-lasting but which I find equally hard to read. Plus I find them annoying in the garden environment, where they remind me of military dog tags.

The benefit of a label “program” is that it allows the gardener to be reminded at a glance where specific plants were originally planted and how they have spread. Ot also clearly shows which plants are thriving. The benefit to visitors, both horticulturally and educationally, goes without saying. 

Finally, there is the simple memory function: Gardeners sometimes forget what they planted where. Many times, early spring shoots cannot readily be confirmed as plant or weed. Finally, there could always be a question if a current bare spot was ever actually planted at all.

September reminders

  • Don’t fertilize at this time; wait until later in the fall.
  • This is the best time for lawn work.
  • Time to give your amaryllis a rest; water less and less and allow foliage to die down. Then don’t water at all for six weeks; after the rest period, remove brown foliage, repot bulb in fresh soil and resume watering. 
  • No pruning yet; wait until very late fall or early winter.
  • Plant shrubs and trees.
  • Lime your tree peonies.
  • Plant pansies from Labor Day until mid-October.

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