Finding a satisfactory method of identifying the plants in the garden is difficult. I used to arrogantly think I would remember which plant was which but when you come across a species, such as roses or hostas, that consist of millions of cultivars (or varieties in the case of roses), you quickly learn that memory can be quite fallacious.
Do you know how many roses there are? Or variegated hostas? Daylily cultivars increase madly every year so if you fall in love with a particular daylily and want more, you either have to divide it or identify it so you can buy some more.
And, for a serious gardener, there is nothing more embarrassing than when asked, “What is that plant?” having to reply, “I haven’t the vaguest idea.” To counteract this mortifying garden faux pas, gardeners resort to searching out plant identification techniques. It seems to me only Tony Avent of Plant Delights, and Nancy Goodwin of Montrose fame, have perfect garden memory.
The problem is this: There is no perfect method to identify plants. The tags that come with plants gradually get lost or buried. The plant identification pens are almost always disastrous, spilling their ink on clothing rather than the tags, which can be downright flimsy.
Forget Sharpies with their wonderful writing points. Sharpies specialize in staining clothing but quickly Sharpie scribblings fade in the sun. I’ve known wonderful gardeners who use lead pencils but these notations are rather faint for aging eyes —and it’s hard to write with lead pencils on most surfaces.
One summer I bought 500 plastic knives, thinking I would use a garden marker to write the name on the hilt while the knife part would slip into the soil. The result was that I had an awful lot of white knife hilts sticking up out of the ground — and the names quickly faded. By the second summer, the sun and cold had turned the knife hilts brittle so they snapped in two. I am still finding plastic knife parts in the garden.
My answer to this problem came when I was visiting a daylily hybridizer. Now daylilies are promiscuous creatures who will hybridize on their own or when subjected to manipulation by hybridizers. Consequently, when searching out the latest “hot” daylily, it helps if they have ID tags.
This hybridizer had a Brother labeler. Using tape with “extra strength adhesive,” she churned out the labels, putting them on labeling stakes of her choosing, consisting of a zinc nameplate attached to galvanized wire.
The nameplates are typically either horizontal or vertical. I personally prefer the vertical (called “hairpin” style) because I have a tendency to step on the nametags when I am weeding the various flowerbeds. After two years — and two winters — I can say that (1) the labels are still on the nameplates; and (2) they have not faded.
Now rose gardeners are the ones who insist upon knowing the particular names of the roses in their gardens. Nothing points to a novice quicker than admitting you don’t know the name of a particular rose. You are only saved if it’s a passalong plant, whose history has been lost through the ages. To cope with this piece of rose elitism, the answer is to simply have a method of identifying the particular rose.
Hosta growers don’t appear to be as demanding but every once in a while, someone will ask witheringly why you do not know the name of a particular hosta. To spare you of any social embarrassment, simply purchase a labeler and extra strength adhesive label tape and begin the identification process of the plants in your garden. As Martha likes to say, “It’s a good thing.”
Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn are contributing columnists. Absent from their gardens, they enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of innovation and horticulture. More on Twitter @AbsenteGardener or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.