How to Read Plant Labels

How to Read Plant Labels

By Michael Jenkins

Gardening is always an adventure—there’s always something new to learn, another interest to explore, or a new variety of plant for your space. While we’re all still learning, there are some core pieces of knowledge that help a lot along the way—including how to interpret the various labels you may find on plants. However, for new gardeners—and even some established gardeners—plant labels can be confusing. They contain a lot of information which may not be clearly labeled, and some of it may be written in a kind of shorthand or code. So what does it all mean? As it turns out, learning how to read plant labels isn’t actually all that difficult once you understand a bit about them, so let’s dig in!

How Plant Labels Are Used

You may encounter plant labels of various kinds in a number of places. Nurseries and garden stores may have small labels stuck into the soil of the plant, which tell you a bit about the plant and the growing conditions that it likes. Botanical gardens, ornamental gardens, and parks or arboretums may have labels on some particularly interesting plants, telling you what they are and a bit about them. While hopefully most public spaces will have an easy-to-follow guide about how to read their plant labels, that’s not always the case. However, with a little know-how and perhaps some detective work, you’ll be able to figure it out.

What Information is on Plant Labels?

Knowing a bit about how plants are classified and the kind of information that gardens and gardeners prioritize can help us decode a plant label. While labels will vary from place to place and vendor to vendor, here’s a brief guide to some of the information you might find on them and what it means:

  • Common Name: the plant’s common name is the name in popular use—what we generally call the plant colloquially or in casual conversation. These names can vary from country to country, so while they’re often included for convenience’s sake, they’re not authoritative. Most plant labels will have another, more specific name—the scientific name.
  • Scientific Names or Latin Binomials: are often included as they are specific to an individual species or varietal, and thus identify the plant more concretely and accurately than the common name Scientific names are generally derived from Latin or Greek and give some information about the plant’s relationship to other plants and its characteristics. We’ve written an entire blog about this, so check that out here for more detailed information about how to read the scientific names of plants.

  • Height and Spacing: This information is generally included on the labels used in nurseries or garden stores, as they give important information to the buyer. You’re less likely to see them in ornamental gardens, parts, or botanical gardens. The height tells you the likely height range the plant will reach when mature, while the spacing tells you how far apart to plant them for best results. In the US, this information is generally given in feet and inches, but metric appears sometimes too so double check and make sure you’re using the right measuring system!
  • Habitat, Sun/Shade, and Water: This is where it often gets confusing. In order to make this information more universal, some plant tags use symbols to indicate the sun/shade and watering requirements or plants. Sun requirements may be indicated in writing (e.g. “full sun”, “partial shade”) or they make use an icon that looks like a sun, with a portion of it blacked out to indicate the amount of shade Likewise, the amount of water needed may be indicated by the text or by a number of raindrop icons—the more raindrops, the more water needed. Habitat is thankfully almost always in descriptive text, e.g. “vining plant that needs ample space”, “mounding” or “trailing.” These tell you how the plant grows and how it will interact with the plants around it—critical information for many gardening and landscaping plans!
  • Fertilizing Information: While this can also take a number of forms, most of the time it will be a short piece of text telling you what kind of fertilizer (e.g. “5-5-5”) and how much/how often to apply it. As always, follow the manufacturers’ recommendation if using a store-bought fertilizer.
  • Additional Information: We’re using this as a catch-all category here, so it may appear on the plant label as “features”, “growing information” or something similar. This will tell you about the plant’s temperature needs, its resistance drought and pest, and any other special considerations for its care. It’s important to read this part thoroughly—you may discover that this plant needs a lot of work to thrive in your space.

Creating Your Own Plant Labels

So, what kind of labels do you need in your own garden? That depends on your garden, your space, and your goals. For landscaping or an ornamental garden, we find it best to leave the plant label that came with the plant nearby. Stuck in the soil near the base of the plant is good enough—just put it in a place where you can find it! If you’re starting from seeds, you’ll want to make up your own plant labels for each plant (or each row/bed if you have a veggie garden). We have an easy-to-use product that might help with that, and you can put the information you want on there. If you’re starting from seeds, we recommend that your DIY labels have the full name of the plant on their, and that you save the seed packets so that you can refer to the information on them.  Regardless of how you do it, a little experimentation and experience will teach you what works for you and what helps you stay organized.

If you have tips or ideas about plant labels or labeling plants, let us know! Gardzen is all about community and we love to hear from you!

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