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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Quick Winter DIY Garden Craft: Durable Garden Labels

Popsicle stick & recycled composite shim plant labels.
Making garden labels is a nice way to spend a wintry weekend after a snowstorm like the one we just had here in Michigan.  You can do this simple craft while watching your favorite TV show or YouTube gardening video. It allows you to think about your garden without exposing yourself to a frosty North wind.  

Garden labels are great things to have because they can help you remember what variety of plant you put in the ground.  What was the name of the variety of tasty tomato that I want to order next year?   Oh... my friend admired that flower... what was it called??  Can I step in that soft spot in the garden bed in late April or is there a bud popping up just under the soil surface waiting to be crushed by my big ol' foot? Is this tiny seedling parsley or cilantro? If you have a plant marker sticking up, you will know!! 

I have had problems with garden labels in the past.  The plastic ones sold in garden centers are often flimsy, and break down in the sun after 1-2 seasons. They are also small. I have an unfortunate tendency to overlook them and stomp on them in the garden. The metal ones are expensive.  I forget about the wrap around tags, so they end up choking off the branches of bushes. Laminated papers attached to stakes peel in the rain.  Luckily, I found a couple of nice alternatives...


Popsicle sticks make great temporary plant markers for seed starting.  You can either recycle these by saving popsicle/corn dog sticks from the food you eat, or you can buy them at your local craft store for about $5-$10 for a box of 500 (in year 2016). 

To make these into temporary plant makers, simply write on them with a pencil. When you finish transplanting your plant, you can either save the popsicle marker for use next year, or throw it in the compost bin where they will break down easily.

For more permanent markers, use shims. There are at least 3 types of shims sold at your local big box stores: short ones made of cedar, long ones made of cedar and short shims made of recycled composite plastic/Trex.  They are inexpensive costing only $1.50-$5.00  (in year 2016) for a bundle of 12 depending on what type you get.  This is often cheaper than the small plastic labels in the garden center. 

Shims make great garden labels!  The cedar is naturally resistant to rot and the recycled plastic is thick and weather resistant. They are tapered so that they are easy to push into the ground. They are large enough that you can write both the common name of the plant and the botanical name and still be able to read them easily.  You could even make notes on the reverse side if you wanted to, such as "120 days to maturity," "determinate tomato,"  "heirloom," or "Gift from Susan 2014."

I recommend using the wooden ones for plants that may be temporary in your garden since they will eventually break down after several years.  For example, I use the wooden shims to label my vegetables.  After all, I may grow a 'black beauty' eggplant for the next year or three, but once the seeds run out, I may want to try a different variety. If you wanted to extend the life of a wooden shim marker, you could paint it over with shellac or clear outdoor varnish.

I recommend using the recycled composite plastic/Trex shims for perennial plants, trees or bushes because both the plant and the shim will last for years.

To make a plant label from a shim quickly, simply write the name of the plant on the shim with a garden marker.  Using a garden marker rather than a Sharpie or other permanent marker is important because the ink does not fade in the sun as quickly as with other markers, nor does it run when it gets wet.   Eventually, you may need to re-write the name of the plant on to the shim.

Write on your labels with a garden marker or pencil.  Other markers may fade or run.

If you are artistic, you could also paint the plant name on to the shim.  Remember to use a good, weather-resistant paint.  Paint will last a long time, but not forever.  Eventually you will need to re-paint the shim. I am not very artistic, which is why I have not shown an example of this type of marker here.  But don't let that stop you if you have a talent for painting! You are limited only by your imagination.

Another way is to use a wood burning pen to burn the name of the plant onto a wooden shim. (WARNING: Do NOT try to do this with the plastic/composite shim! It will melt and ruin your wood burning pen!) You can buy a wood burning pen from your local big box hardware, or craft store.  These range in price from about $12.00- $50.00 (in year 2016) depending on the kit and type of pen. You will also need a stencil unless you feel confident in your ability to draw uniform block letters.

First, write the name of the plant, or friendly garden greeting on to the garden stake with a pencil. 

Next, heat up your wood burning pen according to the directions on the packaging.  Please follow all safety advice with regard to the pen as written on the packaging. Safety first!
Then, use a scrap piece of wood to practice making burn marks in the wood in order to get a feel for how the pen works.

Finally, follow the outline of your stenciled writing on your wooden shim and burn the writing in to the shim.  This may be time consuming. I would expect it to take anywhere from 5-15 minutes per label depending on what you wrote on the shim.

When you are finished, you may choose to apply a clear coat of varnish, shellac, or spray varnish over the shim to increase the longevity of your garden marker.

In the spring, simply push the garden marker into the soil next to the plant that you want to label. Never again will you wonder "what the heck" that plant was! 

If you happen to live near Brighton, Michigan, the Brighton Garden Club is having its annual fund-raising sale on May 21, 2016 at the Brighton Farmer's Market (200 N. First St.
Mill Pond - Downtown Brighton, MI 48114).  I will be selling a limited supply of wood-burned garden stakes that I made at this sale.  There will also be plants and other garden crafts for sale. So if you are in town, please stop by and support us!  I hope to see you there!

Happy Gardening!!! :)


  1. I recycle, use Empty Bleach bottles. I cut off the top and use the let over "Cylinder". I cut it up into 1/2 inch strips, get about 30 off them. I use a pencil and they last 3-4 years. I also use the empty bottles of bleach, soda and cut the tops to use as pots.

  2. Recycling is always encouraged! 😀 I tend to stomp on small plastic tags. Needed something larger and thicker. Your solution is perfect for folks less clutzy than I. 🌷