Sunday, 20 January 2008

Low Cost - Indestructable - Plant Labels

Keeping a large collection of plants permanently and clearly labelled can be an expensive task if you are fortunate to have access to metal mass produced labels on a long wire leg.

Here in Australia, we cannot obtain these, so make do with dinky white plastic nursery ones designed for pots that only have a lifespan of two years. Our high UV radiation fades any permanent inks or chinagraph pencils in less than a year so constant re-applying of the name is necessary and they become brittle at the same time unless one sinks the label into the ground where it is protected but not visible. Added to this we have a mischievous bird population that consider it a challenge to pull up labels and drop them wherever they tire of the sport. The parrots will just chomp them into pieces. Then, I tend to forget they are there and stomp on them, snapping them off when galloping across the garden beds in hot pursuit of weeds and snails.

Some gardeners write plant names in plastic house paint on bricks or rocks. It's very effective as a label. Unfortunately the garden then resembles a cemetery. Could be handy if you are into mourning deceased plants.

Many years ago I tried engraving plant names on aluminium strapping 2.5 Cms (1") wide with one pointed end which was pushed deeply into the ground. Those very rigid labels are still as sound and clear as a bell to read, but quite vicious to ones legs and ankles when weeding. I have the scars to prove it! They are also fairly expensive to make as the piece of aluminium strip needed to be 25-30 cms. (10-12") long to foil the birds. To read the label one needs to lay on the ground or heave it our and ram it back into the ground after perusal.

The problem has had my mind spinning for many years. I've tried numerous devices. I even cut, sharpened and painted 400 wooden stakes an aesthetically pleasing green and wrote the plant names in house paint. I hammered them in with a sledge hammer. They didn't look too bad, but I've lost count of the times I've tripped and fallen over them and eaten dirt. I don't bounce like I used to. Alas the termites or rot had them tumbling over in a year if I hadn't beaten them to it. The paint didn't protect them one jot.

I've finally devised an inexpensive solution to the problem: An aluminium strap name tag dangling on a length of heavy gauge galvanised soft fencing wire pushed deeply into the ground. It's flexible if bumped when weeding, unobtrusive, will last for years, portable if I move rhizomes, bird proof, can be tucked into the clump yet found easily and, important in my case, can easily be straightened if stomped upon by a bovine escapee. Ever tried to find a plastic label that has been driven deeply into wet earth by a bull's hoof?

  • Lengths of aluminium strapping about 2 cms (or 1" wide if you are not on metrics) which comes in 1 or 3 metre lengths (1 or 3 yards). You can buy it narrower if that is more aesthetically pleasing and you are dexterous with an engraving tool, but I'm ham fisted and have aging eyes so the wider lengths suit me. It is more economical to buy the longer lengths. A metre length should cost around AUD$2.60 (EUR1.60, USD$2.30), and will make 7-10 labels. The longer the lengths of strapping, the cheaper per metre (yard). Note: quite successful for use instead of the strapping are old metal venetian blind slats. These have the advantage of being obtained free from the local garbage dump.
  • An engraving tool. A Dremel (see below) with a flexible arm is good but expensive here in Australia. A cheaper alternative is an engraving tool designed for marking household appliances. (AUD$15-A$20). Aluminium is comparatively soft so not hard to engrave. I prefer a plug-in engraver rather than a battery operated one.
  • An electric drill with a drill bit that is designed to poke holes in metal as opposed to one for drilling wood.
  • A pair of tin snips.
  • A pair of stout pliers for cutting lengths of wire and bending the loops on which the labels hang.
  • Quantity of heavy gauge galvanized "soft" fencing wire. Note do not use "High Tensile" wire. It is way too difficult to bend into a loop and usually only available in lighter gauges. Pre-used wire from an old farm fence is fine as long as it is not rusty which will shorten its lifespan. You can also purchase this at large hardware chains in shorter lengths than farmers use.
Study the first illustration so you know what you are aiming to produce.

With a pencil write the plant name on the aluminium strip. After three or four labels you will have the hang of the engraving process and pencilled names will not be necessary. Engrave the plant name
on the aluminium strip. You can put accession information on the back if desired. With the engraving tool mark where the hole for the wire hanger will be close to the top of the label. This helps centre the drill when the time comes to use it. Work your way along the aluminium marking the end of each label with the engraver and the dot for the hole on the next label with the names engraved between. This way you can tailor each label length to the plant name.

When you have finished engraving, separate each label with the tin snips and drill the hole for hanging. At right are labels cut from 1 metre of aluminium. I like my engraved letters large so I can read them without scrambling for my reading glasses. And just think - I'll have braille labels when I'm blind! You could make them smaller and neater than mine.

Decide how tall you want your labels to stand. Measure a length of wire that distance then add 20-30 cms (8-10") for inserting into the ground and the same again for forming the bent top of the wire hanger and the future loop on which the label is to hang. The top measurement is arbitrary depending on your personal preference of how far out of sight you want the wire to nestle amongst your plants. Leave the future loop open. Thread the label onto the topmost bend in the wire and squeeze gently shut with the pliers so that the label is not clamped tightly but remains free swinging but safe from removal by birds or garden visitors. This will save your shins from scratches from a rigid label. Perfectionists could grind off the sharp corners on the labels. I just want to get the job done fast, so don't bother with the grinder.

If you wish the names to be more visible and the shine to be taken off the aluminium, you can rub green or black plastic house paint over the label with an old rag. Wipe off most of the paint from the surface leaving the bulk of it lodged in the engravings. The atmosphere will soon do the same thing without the mess if you are patient.

This is a good job to fill long winter evenings or days too hot to venture outside. Be warned the engraving tool is noisy so the use of ear muffs is advised. The Dremel is much quieter to use. If you don't know what a Dremel is check here:


  1. Brilliant! I am so pleased I found your web page. I have been looking everywhere for cheap, durable plant labels. A great invention - thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Great idea, thanks for describing the process.
    Just wondering where I can buy the aluminium strapping, but I will ask at Bunnings.
    Pity you can't use steel strapping - I have a heap of that, but it rusts fast.