A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

A Winter’s Label Tale, or A Rose by Any Other Name…Might Just Have the Wrong Label

Ruth Rea Howell Horticultural Interpreter Charles Day is Wave Hill’s guru of plant labeling, a science and an art that is an integral part of the visitor experience of our garden landscape. 

Plant labels—love them, or hate them? Labels in a public garden can be a challenge. They are helpful when visitors want to identify a particular plant, but the presence of too many can spoil the beauty and tranquility of a landscape. At Wave Hill, we try to avoid this problem, sometimes called the “graveyard effect,” by labeling plants only when they are in their season of interest; like the very late blooming chrysanthemum (below left) and the annual clary sage last summer (right).

Now the casual visitor may not consider what happens to all these labels when they are not on display—indeed, it is possible that nobody actually cares. (It’s okay, I understand… really). If so, this brief post may go some way in bringing attention to this vital subject. (Perhaps my sense of the centrality of labels in the garden could be a little exaggerated; I’ll leave it for others to judge).

For me, it’s when labels need to be put away somewhere, that my problems start. They are awkward to deal with, especially when they are still attached to their stakes—and we have hundreds of them:

Despite our space-saving racking system (pictured above) in one of the over-wintering rooms for our frost-susceptible plants, we are slowly converting to a much more convenient detachable system:

We’ve been using 400 of these in the Flower Garden for the last two years and they have proved very successful.  As well as offering ease of storage, there is the added benefit of having the option of different stake lengths. Some plants are interesting for many weeks at a time, and as they grow, shorter stakes can be swapped out for taller ones, as shown at left.

This winter we are working on a much bigger project, the assembly of 700 new labels for the Wild Garden. This is a process with several stages:

Each label has a backing plate and both the plate and the label have to be cleaned with solvent, and then secured by industrial-strength, double-sided tape, which has to be cut to length and then firmly and accurately applied, as illustrated in the next three photos.


We note the location of each plant on the back of the label—checked against the master list. Lastly, the labels are filed away in smart new card index drawers, ready for use during the growing season (below). Special mention must be made of our volunteer Becky Thorp, who is doing much of this assembly work.

The master list was compiled over many months with much cross-referencing of records, checking current scientific nomenclature and, importantly, establishing that every plant actually still exists. This list was sent to the manufacturer of our laser-engraved and anodized, aluminum labels, Precision Signs & Labels of Rochester, NY. The design and manufacture of the stakes and backing plates was performed by MAKE Design & Development of Brooklyn, NY. We are most grateful to the Hagedorn Fund for providing the funding for this project.

Old labels, still attached to their stakes, are re-used as stands for our temporary labels:

These temporary labels are created entirely in-house by laminating printed paper and attaching them with Velcro. They are used for annuals (one-year plants) and new perennials that are awaiting their permanent labels.

Woody perennials, perhaps more commonly known as “trees” and “shrubs,” are exceptions. They are visible and interesting all year, so their labels remain in place. At right is a fine example.

So, there you have a glimpse into the life of a labeler, and into what goes on behind the scenes in the winter garden.

And if a rose does have another name, it could be that it has the wrong label—but equally, as I  like to point out, it might be that the label is correct, it’s just that the rose is in the wrong place.


6 thoughts on “A Winter’s Label Tale, or A Rose by Any Other Name…Might Just Have the Wrong Label

  1. One of those essential behind-the-scenes jobs. Much appreciated.

    What do you use for cleaning solvent? I have dozens, maybe even hundreds, of labels (zinc coating with waxy lettering) that need to be cleaned, but so far nothing does the job.

  2. As treasurer of the Wildlife Habitat Team and member of the tree identification group, I am leading the search for horticultural sinage for our 310 Acre campus here at Asbury. I appears you have solve many of your sinage problems. Can you help us solve ours?
    We need the permanent plackards attachable to varying length stakes as you have achieved. Also your permanent large tree “implants” would serve us well. Do you make your own or have you a manufacturer?
    Thanks, Peter

    • Peter, our Horticultural Interpreter Charles Day advises that our principal manufacturer is Botanical Signs of Rochester, NY: http://www.botanicalsigns.com/botanical_signs.html. They make the signs both for attachment directly to tree trunks and those that are permanently attached to stakes. There is one other company we use, mainly for custom-made signs, and that involves a long process of discussion and design. If you’d like to know about them, I suggest you reach out to Charlie directly at charlesd@wavehill.org.

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