Plant labels – do you love or loathe them?

To label or not to label, that is the question!

I was recently involved in a Twitter exchange about the pros and cons of labelling plants in public gardens. I suspect I was in the minority which, on balance, favoured the use of labels.

Christopher Lloyd used to get a mischievous satisfaction from noticing that some visitor to a garden (other than Great Dixter) had lifted a label from the ground to read it and then put it back in the wrong place. To some extent, I think he was a bit ambivalent as to whether to label or not.

In my own garden, I have started introducing small, discrete labels for my own benefit. This is because I regularly forget which plant is which and the thought of giving the Chelsea chop to the wrong plant worries me. The labels also indicate where some herbaceous perennial is in the middle of winter when there’s nothing left above ground and I don’t want to risk shoving a fork through a prized root.

When you think of it, labels are all around us at home all the time. When I look at a TV I see “Sony” or “LG” or “Toshiba”. My computer monitor says “Dell”. The computer itself has “Dell” front, back, right, left, top and bottom though I can only see the front in its housing. In the kitchen the oven shouts “Neff”, the washing machine “Zanussi”, the freezer shouts “Iarp” (there, that surprised you, didn’t it?). But I know all this and whilst I see the labels, they don’t really sink in. They’re there and that’s it.

So why is it that some people scream at the sight of labels in a garden? Are they too big? The wrong colour? The wrong size? Or is it that any label would be an intrusion into the atmosphere of the planting? If I need, I can see that label; or I can see through it, provided it fits its setting.

Let’s take my two most recent garden visits, Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Veddw House Garden.

The former is run as and by an educational charity. It exists to educate. There are areas like “The Rhododendron Walk” and “The Azalea Walk” where you expect to find, and do, rhododendrons and azaleas. Individual plants don’t necessarily need labelling but the “streets” are signed – this helps you to find your way about. If particularly interested in a variety there will be someone within a short distance who can identify a particular plant or get someone who can. In other areas a variety of plants may be dotted around and there are labels (white impressed on black) to identify whatever it is you’re looking at. This type of label isn’t that intrusive and its presence is useful. It also fits because you go there to look at the plants, not the place.

The Veddw is totally different. It’s also there to educate (or, rather, influence) but plants don’t matter that much (unless you are infatuated with ground elder and alchemilla mollis). It’s the garden that matters, not the plants in it. If ground elder died out tomorrow, there would be something to take its place, chosen not as a plant but as a statement. Though whilst plants are not labelled, the garden is. As you wander around you will see a “Garden closed, please respect our privacy” sign casually lying under some plants. “We don’t do teas” and “Please shut the gate” are there as are bricks with arrows on them placed at the wrong entrance to direct you to the right one (and serving as mischief fodder for someone who puts them on top of each other in the hope of catching the unwary Charles as he leaves for work). Reviews of “Bad Tempered Gardener” and “Discovering Welsh Gardens” are pinned to an outhouse wall. These are still labels which are just as much there to be seen; just on a different level. And perhaps more intrusive?

Let’s look at NGS Open Gardens. Sometimes you’re lucky and that garden hosts a national collection of something, when labels are de rigours. But most NGS open gardens entice you in to look at the garden and enjoy the tea and lemon drizzle cake (the absence of the latter being criminal and likely to get the garden thrown out of the Yellow Book next year). The garden owners will be hanging around, though, and all too ready to answer questions (which are usually asked along with some praise).
But everywhere, in every garden, there will be plants that catch the eye. The visitor will then want to find out what that plant is and maybe whether they can grow it. A label allows them to note the info and research at home later. Otherwise they need someone to ask. These days, having people around waiting to be asked is expensive (try finding someone in Homebase to ask about plumbing some time!). The someone also needs to know everything about everything. Do you know everything about everything in your garden? So labelling becomes the necessary substitute for unaffordable luxury.

And all we need to do is train ourselves to see through those labels we are not interested in just as we see through all the brand labels in our homes.