Aug 16, 2010

Don't Tell Until I Ask: Plant Labels

The donation box at The Garden House for plant labels

Don't Tell Until I Ask

Hidcote vs. Nymans
and a word from Christopher Lloyd

Only one of the reasons I was extremely happy when I got to Nymans, is relevant to readers of this blog.

On my first walk around Nymans with Head Gardener, Ed Ikin, I noticed every plant was labeled.  I was elated.  I would be able to learn the names of plants, without asking anyone.
When I arrived at Hidcote and walked around the garden with Head Gardener, Glyn Jones, I noticed none of the plants had labels.  Plant anxiety set in.  I would have to ask for help and within one minute I was sure help was needed.

I asked Glyn about the lack of labels.  "We don't believe in labels.  We think it takes away from the experience of the garden, of looking at plants individually and in the context of the overall garden design."

I started to think about what he had said over the next three weeks.  Was it true that plant labeling takes away from the experience of "looking and seeing?"
Plant label at Sissinghurst
In a single day, visitor after visitor ask the gardeners what a particular plant is.  The gardeners have been trained to stop what they are doing and answer visitor questions, and when they don't know the answer to find someone who does.  I have seen gardeners take the email address of a visitor who is interested in purchasing a particular plant or receiving seed from a unusual plant.  Gardeners in the UK are overwhelmingly generous with their knowledge.
Great Dixter no labels 

Christopher Lloyd on Labels:
The plants at Dixter are unlabelled.  I know this is a bore, when you quickly want a plant's name.  Generally there is someone to ask.  
Plant Label - Nursery - Great Dixter

Here are some of the reasons for my not labelling:
1.  This is my own, personal garden; I do not have the obligations of an institution like a botanic or National Trust garden. 
2.  I hate the look of labels.  Like a cemetery.
3.  They are expensive in terms both of materials and the time needed to list the plants and to write and place the labels.
4.  Plants (as against shrubs) need labels that are stuck into the ground.  The public removes them, the more easily to read, but does not replace them firmly or even int he right place.
5.  It is easier to pop a label into a handbag than to try and memorise it on the spot.
6.  The wrong label is read for the name of the plant to be identified.
7.  Visitors dart into the border, oblivious of footprints, the better to read a label that is out of reach from the front.
8.  If all labels are for that reason placed at the front, misapplication of names will be aggravated.
9.  Even when plants are clearly labelled, the public will still ask their name if anyone is around to talk to.  They're on an outing.  We're trying to work.
Christopher Lloyd
- from A Guide to Great Dixter

Nymans and Hidcote have differing approaches to plant labels.  I remain in the corner of labeling. I know that one day, the garden will become like the museum.  We will be attached to headphones, listening to podcasts about plants and garden design.  In the meantime, I enjoy having the information in front of me.


Marguerite said...

I used to volunteer at Van Dusen Botanical garden in Vancouver, Canada and plant labels were an issue there as well. There was a group of volunteers dedicated strictly to labeling and it was a constant process as labels continuously went missing or were moved thereby causing incorrectly labeled plants. Not to mention the new plantings that had to be labeled. Rather a maintenance headache always checking beds over and over to make sure the labels were in place and correct.

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