I try to avoid labeling.

This is my contribution to the Garden Blogger's Design Workshop for January on Labeling and Record-Keeping.

Left: one of the many signs used to label the Harry Potter Garden. If they weren't labeled, you'd have no idea how dangerous these plants can be.

I only take the time to label things in the yard the morning of Garden Walk each year. Garden Walk is our big garden tour (largest in the country!) with over 300 urban gardens open for viewing. Last year, we had around 2,000 people coming through our yard. That figure comes from my neighbor, who had his kids count visitors. I can be caught running around looking for tags that haven't been written on too much, minutes before crowds start coming, labeling only the plants of which I'm sure of their names. No Latin. No spell-check.

I only label for the benefit of these visitors. Any other time of the year nothing is labeled. I do keep plant tags in a plastic pot in the garage. They're more for looking up plant info for the blog, or the occasional person asking about a specific plant. Trouble is they're just thrown in there and many of the labels are of plants that have gone on to meet their maker in the big compost pile in the sky. Someone should really go through them and clean 'em out.

Right: We get as many comments about the MTV house as we do anything else in the garden.

I do also label some things of interest to people that aren't all that into plants. Specifically the husbands that get dragged around from garden to garden. I've designed a lot of interpretive signage for museums over the years and I've enjoyed doing the same around my yard for the Garden Walk visitors. One is a sign about the fact that MTV filmed a TV series in the house just behind me, on the other side of my fence.

It was the 2003 season of Fraternity Life. Sounds like it'd be a loud madhouse of pranksters & bawdiness–but we hardly knew they were there. I had no idea it was going on until I saw a guard wandering up and down their driveway one day from my bathroom window. Later that day I saw the same guard on a TV news segment on MTV being in town to film this series. That's how I found out.

It was very quiet the fall they filmed the show. The only way we knew they were there was something going on was the bright lights set up around their back yard. It was so bright that at night, it would light up my hallway–jarring at 1 a.m. when I'd get up to go to the bathroom. (And at 3:30 a.m. And 5:00 a.m., being over 40 sucks.)

The show, when it aired, held our interest for two episodes. We couldn't bear watching more. It was cool to see our house though (from the back, and only the top half, and only rarely, and blurry) on TV. Turned out fine though. My wife and I went to college with the Executive VP and GM of VH1 ( and former Executive VP of Music Programming for MTV). We emailed him just to let him know that they were filming in the house behind us. He sent us a big basket of wines and cheeses in return for our troubles (which were none) and we were invited to the wrap party (which we politely declined).

Left: the sign highlighting some of the architectural details of the house.

Another sign I put together was for the architectural style of the house. Buffalo's a living architectural museum with houses running the gamut from high-style Stick Victorians, Sears & Roebuck mail-order bungalows, Prairie Box classic four-squares and Dutch colonials–and that's just my street! A few blocks away you can find Civil War-era cottages, H.H. Richardson-designed towers and a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed private home. I wanted visitors to appreciate the architecture of this 112-year-old house of which I am lucky enough to be the current steward.

Other signs I put up are for the Harry Potter garden, which I've posted about here. I've also had labels made for my espalier and climbing vines.

To date these signs were printed off my computer onto photo paper. Sucks if it rains, I have to reprint. This year, if it's in the budget, I may get them printed to be permanent. Next year, I will add labels for my lightning rod, an original piece of artwork by a a local sculptor, and the formal vegetable potager garden.


  1. Glad to see you are labelling your pants. I do wish someday the "Throw up Bush" could be given a label...

  2. Pant. Plants. Whatever. I think the Rocket Vomit Juniper would take too much time to explain.

  3. Labels...I guess I'm going to have to write a post and participate in this month's project too. The Quest for the Perfect Label is somewhat like the Holy Grail, isn't it?

  4. My tag storage is similar, a ziploc. I do often find tags buried in the dirt when digging up plants.
    Your house is beautiful!

  5. My labels are here, there and everywhere! My rant is when I buy something labeled one color and it turns out to be another color -- too late to replace with the color that I really wanted!


  6. jodi,
    There is no such thing as the perfect label. I was much happier in life when I came to that realization.

    Thanks. A ziplock is high-tech compared to my pot of labels. It's left dirt all over my desk.

    My wife once bought a slew of tulip bulbs for me she picked up in Holland, in the most exotic colors - blues, reads, crimsons and deep purples. They all came up yellow. I feel your pain.

  7. You can waterproof your labels easily enough Jim. Just get that clear tape that is used to seal window/glass cracks. Sandwich your lables between two pieces.

    You can get it at Home Depot for cheap...

  8. Thanks Ms. A, Teddy's Mom, Al, Sandy – whichever one of your personalities is on top today. That'd be a good option to try out before I spend money on permanent ones.

  9. Hi Jim, you are the master of definitive, interesting labels. May we learn your technique, when you come up with one. :-) What a dilemma. We want to know what is what, but hate the way those stakes break off, move or just plain disappear. And don't even talk about pens. For me though, it's not what is it, but where is it.


  10. Frances,
    Why thank you. My original name for the post was going to be "Dynamo Label MAker," though I'm no dynamo and am not good about labeling plants, so it would have been false labeling.

  11. You raise an issue I hadn't considered: the value of labeling before garden tours. With that many people coming though, it must save you countless hours answering questions. It's also a kindness to those who'd like to ask but don't want to be a bother. Thanks for sharing this post for the GGW Design Workshop, Jim.

  12. I too do not label the plants in my garden, but never thought about doing it for the garden tours. What a good idea!

  13. Nan & heirloomgardener,
    What I should do is take the top three questions (Where'd you get those outdoor rugs? Is that really a clematis? An espalier, I've never heard of that?) and do up signs for those - saving repeating the same thing 2,000 times.

  14. I know I've said this a billion times but I LOVE your house!

    Great post on labels, too.

  15. Don't throw out those old labels from plants that have gone on to a better place - they make an excellent reminder of all the things you once grew. Occasionally, I like to look back on the plants I've killed & think about what could have gone wrong and consider whether I should try again. I'm with you about not labelling plants in the garden, so there are plant tags in boxes & in plastic pots in the garage. I need to organize them & come up with a better storage system.

  16. Gina,
    You have mentioned before how much you like my house. I'm starting to get nervous, you're not a house stalker, are you? I have a friend that is. She spends her Sundays attending open houses. She's a great fan of houses and all the realtors know her, and miss her when they don't see her.

    Mr. McGregor's Daughter,
    Throw something away? Why, I wouldn't have it!

    I should find a bald piece of earth, arrange all my dead plant labels there like grave markers and call it my plant graveyard. I think it's funny, but not many appreciate my sense of humor as much as they should.


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