Plant Tags

I used to share my garden, and my house, with a roommate. Rinsing out someone else’s dirty dishes and waiting in line for the bathroom on Saturday morning was not a big deal, but sharing a perennial border was. I’m just not good at gardening in groups. Gardening is a highly personal endeavor, and I often find the behavior of other gardeners perplexing or downright irritating. I’m not proud of this; it’s just the way it is.

Take plant tags, for instance. I came home one day and my roommate was sitting next to a drought-tolerant border of salvia and penstemon, a shovel in one hand and a six-pack of pansies in the other. On the sidewalk was an entire flat of pansies—about sixty plants in all.

That’s OK, I thought. Pansies aren’t exactly my favorite flower, considering the fact that they are squat, frivolous little things that serve no real purpose in a garden, but who knows, maybe she’s not so crazy about salvia. Fair enough.

Then I looked closer and realized that she’d added something else to the garden. Standing proudly next to every sixth pansy was a plastic plant tag. Every one of them was facing the same way, as if they were ready to go marching off to war.

Why do people do this, dear readers? Really, I’d like to know. Write to me with your ideas, please. We don’t leave the tags on our clothes, so why would we leave them on our plants? Are people worried that they will forget that the pink and purple flowers they’ve stuck in the ground are, in fact, pansies and not—oh, I don’t know—onions or apple trees? Do they intend to refer to the information on the tag later? (“Use in beds, pots. Plant in sun, part sun. Water.”) Or do they think that the presence of plant tags makes the garden seem more like a real garden, more professional, more orderly? And if they lost the plant tag, what exactly would they do differently? Would they rip out the plant and replace it with one whose label was still intact?

I was about to find out. There was no way those plant tags were going to survive a winter in my garden. I waited a decent interval and began, one by one, to remove the tags. I left some scattered around the garden in hopes that the wind, or the cat, could be blamed. My roommate never said a word about it, but she did move out the following year. I wish her well. I hope her garden is a sea of plastic plant tags, all lined up in alphabetical order.

Granted, it is not always easy to live without plant tags. My garden is filled with plants whose names I can’t remember. This is mildly embarrassing when somebody comes to visit and asks the name of a particularly lovely specimen, but otherwise it really doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to know which cultivar of agastache I’m growing, or whether the lilies are Oriental or Asiatic. As long as they keep blooming, I’m satisfied.

Garden catalogs sell lovely engraved plant labels made of stone or copper. “Basil,” they read. “Mint.” “Chives.” To whom, I’ve always wondered, are these tags addressed? Surely not to the owners of the plants. If you’re growing mint in your garden, you know it, because it has taken over your backyard. Basil is not likely to be overlooked (hint: it smells like pesto), and if you can’t find the chives, use an onion instead.

But there are reasons to label plants from time to time. If you’re going to open your grounds for a garden tour, you’d better set out some tags or you’ll spend the entire day saying, “Good morning. Cecile Brunner. Nice of you to come. Cecile Brunner. Good to see you. The climbing rose? Let me think…Oh, maybe that’s Cecile Brunner.”

And I must admit that I have been the beneficiary of other people’s plant tag mania. Just last weekend, I was able to correctly identify 95 percent of the plants around the house my brother just bought, thanks to the presence of dozens of little plastic tags left there by the previous owner. “Oh, that’s a ‘Mystery’ gardenia,” I said, knocking the dirt off the tag with my toe. “Grows to six to eight feet. Full sun or part shade. Preferred by florists.” It’s nice to be the gardening expert in the family.

But let’s face it, the tags are a crutch. They’re going to fall apart in a season or two anyway, so here is my plea to plant taggers everywhere: either memorize the name of the plant or forget about it. If you must keep the tags, promise me that you will do something creative like organize them in a card file or glue them into a scrapbook. Make a sketch of the garden and jot down what you’ve planted where. Take a photo of the plant and tape the label to the back of it. Anything, just don’t put those little plastic markers in the dirt. They won’t make you a better gardener. And your life will not be improved if, six months from now, you can look at a dirty scrap of plastic and realize that you once planted six dozen ‘Crystal Bowl’ pansies in the perennial border.