“Everything I know I learned from reading plant tags”

Plant Tags 5
Like every gardener outside Zone 9, I’m looking right past January outside my window and imagining April.

I don’t know when I caught the gardening bug but I’m pretty sure my sister Kathleen gave it to me. She’s the real green thumb in the family, having coaxed several beautiful gardens from nothing over the years. Somewhere along the way, she passed the fever on to me, and now it’s in my blood forever. Kind of like malaria.

So many blissful hours spent wandering the garden center aisles or browsing the twigs-in-bags at the grocery store, learning a Moonglow Juniper (my favorite) from a Wichita Blue (OK in a pinch) or a Gibson’s Scarlet Potentilla, with leaves like a strawberry and darling red flowers, from a common Shrubby Cinquefoil that’ll turn leggy and wooody before you know it (at least mine always do) or a Rosy Glow Barberry from a Crimson Pygmy or a Cranberry Cotoneaster from a Coral Beauty. 

Finally, after years of studying these perfect little Reader’s Digest condensed treasures, and years of experimenting and failures in my own gardens, I’ve graduated to plant tag critic.

“Yeah, right. Who are they kidding ‘part sun’? That won’t grow in anything but a full blaze.”

“Prefers damp conditions? Swamp is more like it.”

“Grows to 3 feet? Try 5 feet — in both directions!”

Pet peeve: Stores that push warm-climate plants as perennials. I’ve fallen for that trick before; now I just get mad and try to warn away other gardeners as they reach happily for their exotic new treasure. (“Hmmph. Who are they kidding calling that Mexican Heather a perennial — maybe in Mexico! or “That Sacred Bamboo is not coming back next year, I can tell you that.”) Happily, it works both ways: Some annuals do survive the winter sometimes, especially if you plant them in the same place for a few years: my beloved Victoria Blue Salvia, for example, along with snappies (snapdragons) and even impatiens.

I even know enough now to recognize many plants without their tags. But that doesn’t mean my feeble, middle-age brain can keep up. Names that used to trip off my tongue are now stuck playing rundown between sputtering synapses. It’s made my library of saved tags especially essential as reference in cases like this:

My brain: “C’mon, you know, it’s one of your favorites, a Perennial of the Year, yellow daisy-like flowers, mounding, a kind of tickseed — a moon….moon-something.” 

Me, eventually, if I’m lucky: “MOONBEAM COREOPSIS!”

If not, as is the case more and more these days, I’m reduced to hunting for the tag or Googling “moon perennial” to see what I get.

Yes, it’s true, everything I know about plants probably does have its origin in a plant tag. Here’s an idea: I often think how expensive it must be to print all those tags — whether you buy a 4″ starter or a 2-gallon giant, you usually get the same tag. And I’ve often wished I could recycle the ones I don’t need. Heck, I’d even be willing to sort through a collection bin to group them together and send them back to a grower (it would be so fun to read them). How ’bout it, nurseries and big-box garden centers: a bin for recycling or reusing plastic pots, a bin for the carrying trays, and a bin for tags?

In the meantime, I’ll keep saving tags — “one of everything” — and collecting more as my garden grows. I may not have the room or the budget for the library of my dreams, but the garden of my dreams is flourishing in two fat folders, growing more lush every year.

If you have a garden and a library,
you have everything you need.
                                    ~ Cicero

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