I’ve come on in leaps and bounds with labelling over the past few years (although someone I live with would say “could do better” as he ferries pots and trays about the place). I thought I would scribble up what I’ve learned in case it helps anyone.
What to write labels with – the very best thing I’ve got is a chinagraph pencil. I only bought it last year, but the labels I’ve just washed look like I only wrote on them this morning, and I can reuse them as they are this season. Otherwise, for slippery plastic like milk cartons, a thick felt-tip permanent marker from Sharpie works very well. Where the plastic will take it, a pencil is fine, but not one of those fine mechanical ones, or you *will* lose an eye or three and even if you don’t, it can scratch the label. Both chinagraph and pencil come off easily with a rubber when you want them to, but I don’t think you can get permanent marker off (ah, so that’s what permanent means).
If you use wood or soft metal labels, a ballpoint will do the job nicely. I don’t, so it doesn’t, and generally for me the worst of all is any kind of pen, ballpoint, rollerpoint, whatever. They either won’t write, or you won’t be able to get the writing off when you want to use the label for a different plant, but if you *don’t* want it to come off, it will probably wear off or wash off in the rain. Of course that doesn’t stop me using one occasionally and I always regret it.
Shop bought labels
Basic plastic labels may be dull and stand out rather unattractively but are pretty useful (like me then, except for the useful bit). You can get them in different sizes and shapes, even colours, and they’re sturdy. I particularly like the T-shaped ones for rows in the ground as you can write on them the right way up which means you don’t wander round the garden doing a Madeline Bassett impression as you try to work out what you’ve planted where. Plastic labels do however get very brittle after a few years’ use and you really need to say goodbye to them at this point, or you will find yourself writing on shorter and shorter labels every time you plant something. Some people combine these with an electronic labeller, but I haven’t managed to distract my employers to borrow theirs for long enough and I’ll be in the market for floating glass baubles for our ponds long before I’ll be likely to pay good seed money for an electric labeller for the garden.
Fancy labels – my only experience with these is some clay ones labelled “tomatoes”, “beans” etc. I know what a tomato plant looks like. And I know what a bean looks like. What I want my labels to remind me is which tomato and which bean. Not surprisingly I was given these in a gift set which was an unwanted gift, I think, to one of my sisters. The problem with these pre-printed labels is of course they have to make them fairly generic – even “Tomato Gardener’s Delight” would limit the number of customers who might buy them.
I haven’t yet seen a fancy label I would pay for, although some of the metal ones look nice, perhaps for a special, long-term plant, like a fruit tree. You emboss these with either a ball point pen or metal punches and a hammer.
You can also buy a variety of wooden labels – some of them are a variation on ice lolly sticks (see below) and some are made of oak, or even teak. Not my cup of tea although again you could make your own for special plants – we have made labels for Christmas presents by cutting slices of wood and doing a bit of amateur pyrography with a soldering iron, although if we were to do this again I think we’d find a better method of doing the burning.
Empty seed packets – I’ve been known to just fold them up and shove them in the end of the row/pot but this only works when you’ve finished the seeds up, and when you are going to recognise the adult plant enough for the details not to matter in the future (for example I do this quite often with flowers and any old basics where I’m just using up a packet and don’t need to know how a particular variety performs). It varies, but even in a few weeks under cover, a seed packet can rot down to half of its former self and inevitably it’ll be the important information that disappears. I’ve known of people who laminate the packet, or part of it, to use as a label, but I am too poorly equipped and disorganised to have tried this.
Cut up milk bottles – Cut up yoghurt and food containers are OK, but I find them much more prone to bending in the changing temperatures and light. Unfortunately I probably won’t be able to use any more milk bottles as our council has just started collecting them to recycle so I will probably put them in there instead (although obviously I’d rather cut up and reuse a milk bottle than buy any new plastic labels).
Ice lolly sticks and other things wooden – these aren’t bad at all but I don’t tend to get them in enough quantity. They do have a pleasing rustic look, and at least once they are worn out they will rot or burn (if you have a fire or woodburner) unlike their pesky plastic cousins. And although I haven’t bought a Lemonade Sparkle or even a Fab (mmm…Fab) in years, I’m sure some of them still have jokes on, which you never know, might distract the slugs from eating your lettuces. I’ve just come across a great picture of chip shop forks nabbed by Matron of Down on the Allotment – they look even better than lolly sticks as they’re more compact and give a bit more room to write. Take a look at the links below for the picture, along with a couple of other bloggers’ views and ideas on labelling.
Making your own metal labels – so far I’ve been too scared to do this but Multiveg has a smashing clear tutorial on using drinks cans, while many people recommend old Venetian blinds. Again, links below. I’ve just been informed that we have plans of our own, involving an old copper hot water tank and a variety of interesting tools, so watch this space.
Bloggers on plant labels:
http://veggies-only.blogspot.com/2009/02/my-affair-with-love-apple.html – Matron’s marvellous chip shop fork labels.
http://multiveg.wordpress.com/2009/02/03/label-making/ – a great idea for turning fizzy drinks cans in to embossable metal labels. Mind your fingers!
http://vegmonkey.co.uk/campaign-for-lovely-labels/ Mrs Veg Monkey puts the case for more inventiveness in ID.
http://vegplotting.blogspot.com/2009/01/tagging-my-garden.html – Veg Plotting on plotting her veg!
http://www.gardeninggonewild.com/?p=3237 – “Labelling and record-keeping wrap-up”, a medley of bloggers’ ideas from Gardening Gone Wild.
http://jimmycrackedcorn.wordpress.com/2009/02/17/garden-plant-markers-from-wire-shirt-hangers/ – when you’ve got all the Blue Peter advent calendars you could want, your remaining wire coat hangers can have a new lease of life as professional looking row markers. This produces T-shaped labels (so no Bassett impressions) with a holder for paper/card labels so you can replace them when necessary, a really clever idea.
http://coopette.com/blog/label-tidy – Emma from Fluffius Muppetus/Alternative Kitchen Garden has invented a label tidy, which is several steps up on the flower pot I shove all my labels in and then spend ages shuffling bad-temperedly through looking for the label I’m sure I remember writing last year and inevitably won’t find until I’ve written a new one. I shall shamelessly pilfer this idea for myself, this weekend. I notice Emma’s labels are machine printed and look highly professional. I might have to have second thoughts on borrowing that office label printer after all…