I’ve been on the hunt for a good way to label the plants in my vegetable garden, specifically, the many varieties of tomatoes. I grow some of the same types each year, but also try a new variety or two each year.
I love the look and durability the of metal plant labels you see at botanical gardens, but they’re meant more for perennials, where you’re writing the label on them once and then keeping it in place for the life of the plant.
I felt that they were too costly for the type of single season use that I needed.
I didn’t want to buy the cheap plastic labels found at dollar stores and elsewhere—I don’t like creating more plastic garbage than I need to, and that’s what these single-use labels would become. They’re also brittle and would likely snap off if accidentally hit or stepped on.
I’ve experimented with writing the names on cedar shims from the hardware store with a marker—the cedar shim markers worked and are compostable, but I found the rough texture destroyed the tip of my marker in short order. That seemed like a waste.
Advice on several garden websites suggested cutting up old window blinds and writing on the slats with a marker so I tried it. I really like using window blind slats when I’m labelling trays of seedlings or pots of perennial plants for a plant sale, but I didn’t like them in the vegetable garden. I found that they became brittle and broke very easily, and they were so low to the ground that they disappeared amongst the foliage (leaving the blinds longer so that the labels could be taller didn’t work—the blinds flopped over and were more prone to snapping off). They were better than some of the other methods but weren’t quite what I was looking for.
But then last year I finally figured it out. I came up with a way to label my plants that recycled something I already had on hand, was sturdy enough to last the season, and kept the labels within view.
I like to make jam and do other sorts of canning. The flat metal lids that go inside the rings on canning jars are only meant to be used once, as they may not seal if reused. Every time I pop open a jar of peach jam or canned tomatoes I end up with a flat disk of metal that’s destined for the recycling bin. No longer–that lid makes a great plant label!
Even better, it has a white coating on one side that is an excellent surface for writing on with a Sharpie marker.*
I took a stack of canning lids* and my drill out to my potting shed and made a couple dozen labels in a very short period of time. I put the lids, one at a time, on a block of wood (so I wouldn’t damage my work surface), and drilled a hole through them so that I’d be able to thread a hanger through them. Then I wrote the tomato variety name on each label.
Then, I attached my labels to my metal plant stakes with some metal twist ties I had on hand (I believe they came in a box of garbage bags). Do not use metal twist ties if you’re fastening these labels directly onto a plant. They could damage the plant’s stem, or even cut right through it. Always use soft ties (like sisal twine, or cut up stockings) and leave room for expansion, when you’re tying something directly to a plant.
I attached my labels to the metal plant stakes for two reasons—it let me put the labels up higher on the stake so I could read them (and I can slide them up higher as the season goes on), and to give the label some distance from the plant. I was worried that in a big windstorm, especially when the plants were young, that the labels would flap around and damage the plants.
If you use tomato cages you could attach the stakes to those, or to a small stick. You could even, if you wanted to be a little fancier, create hooks out of metal coat hangers to hang the labels on (i.e. push a long straight part into the ground and then fashion a hook at the top that you feed through the hole on the label).
I was curious to see whether the ink would fade over the summer. But at the end of the season the labels were just as legible as when I put them out in May:
I stored the labels in the shed over the winter, thinking I might reuse some of them this year. I’ve noticed that they did rust a bit over the winter, so I will likely put them in the recycling bin now, and make a new batch. I’ve been eating through my supply of peach jam, peach sauce and canned tomatoes all winter, so there are certainly lots of lids ready for the job!
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