Garden Markers & Labels – Keeping Track Of All Your Plants

On the rare days when we open our home gardens to visitors during the annual plant sales, I’m often asked how I remember all the names of all the plants. There aren’t any markers sunk into the ground, on display for people to read…so how do I do it?

First, let me share a few things that I’ve learned over the past 11 years of gardening here in Duluth.

  1. Plastic Plant Labels that come with many plants do not last. They degrade, turn brittle, and also often wind up being pushed around by winter snows and melting. They are unreliable for use in the garden. Save them in a file somewhere.
  2. Wooden plant labels will hold ink from a permanent marker well, but they rot. They’re really only good for a single season of gardening. Wood is not your answer.
  3. The thicker plastic labels that are sold at stores like Menard’s tend to hold up better to the elements. Some folks use pencil on their labels, and that resists fading from the sun. I’ve found that if I use a Sharpie on them, that will fade out over time with sun exposure. However, if I BURY the label, the Sharpie tends to last; I have labels that are 5 years old that are still quite readable. So for sale plants, this is what I’ve taken to doing. In the past, I would simply label the pot exterior with masking tape, but since I’ve found successful ways to overwinter plants for sale in their pots (rather than trying to “blow them out”), masking tape doesn’t last. These plastic labels with sharpie, when buried, do hold up, so I’ll make sure to write the name as many times as I can on the label, and bury as much of it as I can into the pot.

But all of that is still less than ideal from the standpoint of marking plants that are more permanent. People have tried making maps of their gardens, or taking photos and then labeling them. I found these methods difficult to implement and even more challenging to update, among other problems.

Painted rocks come up a lot. But paint chips, and here in Duluth, snow has no problem relocating your rocks. Rocks aren’t really an option.

Many Hosta hobbyists ultimately recommend using metal Kincaid-type markers. Some people will even laser etch the names into the metal face, but most use the UV-resistant Brother’s labels to create long-lasting tags for their plants. But, in my experience, even these do not truly last. They get bent, adhesives fail over time, and they’re just not the most attractive option.

You can spend some serious cash to properly, professionally label the plants in your garden, akin to what you might see at a professional arboretum or botanical garden. I think that if you’re going to take the time to create beautiful gardens and having all the plants properly labeled is an integral part of your plan, then it only makes sense to invest in the highest-quality, highly-attractive, professional solutions. That way you’ll be truly pleased with the results, and you’ll impress the people who see your garden.

Me? I ultimately skipped the labels because I’d rather spend my money on plants!


Yes, I keep a spreadsheet with relational data that allows me to figure out what any plant is, should I not remember it. The day I place an order for a plant, I add it to the spreadsheet, and the day it arrives I check it in. I note how many I ordered, where I ordered them from, what I paid for them, any notes about the quality or size of the plant, or what it’s purpose was (e.g. when ordering liners to grow out and resell in future years). I then also note what I did with the plant, which unless it already has a spot in the ground, the first step these days is that it is potted up (with a label).

Here’s an example entry from early 2021:

Tickle Me Pink | 15 Liners | 4/9/21 – Pre Ordered from Ed Thaubald (Bentley Gardens). $3.65 per liner, plus $10 flat shipping for the whole thing. PAID IN FULL on 4/9/21 – Shipping June 1, 2021. Received 6/11/21. Potted, need to grow for a year or two – all are in the front bed by the west side of the house.

As the years go on, if I opted to plant any Tickle Me Pinks, I would note that, but since I already have two clumps of Tickle Me Pink in the ground, these will probably all be sold in the years to come.

Here’s a couple of example entries from other plants that are in the ground, permanent residents of the gardens.

American Halo | 1 big division | 7/13/17 – given to Ethan by Rosie & Dee (her daughter) at Rosie’s Hostas. 8/20/17 – planted in Ethan’s Cherry Tree Garden 2017 directly under Cherry Tree at 3:00, Stained Glass is in front of it. Parasol looks somewhat similar and is to the south of it.

Yoshinogawa | 1 3-growth plant | 2014, Jim’s Hosta via Hosta Library Auctions – $34.00 + shipping – in front hill garden reboot, to the immediate right of Heliotrope Bouquet Siberian Iris, to left of Fingerprint. – kikutii var. polyneuron ‘Yoshinogawa’. 4 growths in late 2015. 8/21/2015 – dug up to check, left 2 growths where they were, split off 2 growths, and moved to backyard stairs, right, foreground, between Ghost Spirit (left) and Maui Buttercups (right). 7/6/16 – moved front one further uphill, is now to the left of the newer Kalaidochrome, in front of Fingerprint hosta. 10/6/16 – Backyard one did really well, front hill not so much. 5/17/17, front hill is 4 growths now, backyard one is 5 growths. 5/27/18 – both appear to be 8 growths this year, but the backyard stairs one is significantly larger and more vigorous. Should dig and sell (or at least move) the one in front. 6/8/18, dug up the front hill one and potted. 6/28/18 – traded the potted one with [name withheld] on Facebook for a nice 3-growth division of [redacted]

How to use this type of information?

There are many different ways I can use these notes and data to track down what a plant is, should I ever forget. Let’s use the Yoshinogawa entry as an example.

The most important part of all of this is “backyard stairs, right, foreground, between Ghost Spirit (left) and Maui Buttercups (right)”. Why? I know where the backyard stairs are. I know this plant is on the right side of the stairs (if you’re going up). I know it’s in the foreground (close to the stairs, not planted further back). And I know that Ghost Spirit is to the left, and Maui Buttercups is to the right.

If I’m standing in the garden looking at this plant, and drawing a blank, I can search the spreadsheet for any number of terms. I could try “stairs”, and any hosta’s entry where I thought to mention “stairs” will come up for me to quickly review.

If I recognize one of the neighboring plants (e.g. Maui Buttercups, which is fairly hard to forget), I can search all my Maui Buttercup entries to find the one that’s planted along the backyard stairs and to see what’s next to it. Of course, searching for “Buttercups” not only gives me all the rows that are for Buttercups but will also turn up any other entry where Buttercups is mentioned.

In the case of Yoshinogawa, none of the entries for Maui Buttercups mention it, because it was planted at least a year after they were added there, and I never updated those entries to note that I had put a Yoshinogawa next to any of them. So that’s a dead end. But “buttercups” also hit on the entry for Yoshinogawa, and gave me a name. If I didn’t remember what Yoshinogawa looked like, a quick Google Image Search for “Hosta Yoshsinogawa” turns up plenty of pictures that I can reference.

Basic Record Keeping, Smart Planting, and Smart Purchases Help

The one surefire way to NEVER be able to figure out what a hosta is would be to never record the names of the plants you purchase. You can even make a lot of mistakes along the way in the relational data, but if you have every last name, you can always search that list looking for matches. Even in a collection of hundreds of hostas, you start to realize that MOST are somewhat distinct (provided they’re garden-worthy introductions – I’m a strong believer in the 20-foot rule). There is only one plant here that looks anything like Yoshinogowa, and if all else failed, googling the name of that plant and looking at the images would have been enough to secure an ID.

With something like 12,000 hostas floating around with names now, it can be very tough to keep track of them. I still will bury tags by a plant (particularly with some of my daylilies where clumps are planted in multiple locations in a somewhat haphazard fashion). That said, in the case of hostas, I generally won’t plant “lookalike” plants anywhere close to each other, and there are always some that you can recognize from a mile away (e.g. Spilt Milk). So, if you put enough data into your spreadsheet, you can always reverse engineer your way from a waypoint (like a known plant or even just a general bed name) to narrow it down until you have an answer.

Of course, you can help this further by not buying plants that look similar to other plants you already have! Hadspen Blue looks pretty similar to Halcyon in one of the locations they’re both planted. It would be pretty tough (but maybe not impossible) to differentiate the two in my garden with only their names and online photos alone. This is a case where the relational data helps makes it significantly easier, as only Hadspen Blue is at the “top of the garage hill, Sagae to the left, Columbus Circle right”.

Take a Refresher Course In Your Garden

This is the other secret. Each spring, I walk the gardens eager to see what’s coming up, and some years if there is time I’m even counting pips, noting if a plant is proliferating, maintaining the status quo, or in decline (danger Will Robinson). Spring is certainly the time where my memory is refreshed, as plants are coming up and I’m starting to remember who is who in the garden.

I also use my spreadsheet to note plants that require attention, either in the current season or a future one. Examples could be plants being shaded by their neighbors (so dig them out and move or sell them) or streakers that require maintenance. While rare, I even note when a plant is lost (e..g White Feathers, which just never grows well this far north..our season is simply too short).

As the season progresses, I’m looking at plants, assessing their health and condition, all while trying to remember what they’re called. The moment I forget a name, I’m using all my notes in the spreadsheet to help me recall that name. Do this long enough, and you start to remember most plants without requiring ANY labels anywhere. Every time I see something that needs to be done, I’m having to track down the right entry and updating it. And every time I DO something, I’m recording what I’ve done, once again being forced to find the right plant name and, more specifically, the right individual plant, to update my records.

Collecting seed is the last time of the year where I’ll typically be forced to recall what a plant is, and once again, if I’ve forgotten what it is, I turn to my spreadsheet to get the answers. This is one of those mission-critical times where a wrong name can lead to disappointing results, so I must be sure to get it right during seed harvest in late September or October.

This ongoing repetition, and the constant process of taking notes and looking things up throughout the season, keeps my mind sharp and is how I can walk someone through the gardens while rattling off the names of most of the plants, most of the time!

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