Reading Plant Tags for Garden Success

It was love at first sight. You were strolling down the aisles of your local nursery, minding your own business, when something wonderful caught your eye. It wasn’t just any plant – it was the perfect plant for your garden. Your hand reached out to grasp your new treasure. Holding it close as you headed toward the checkout aisle, you noticed a plant tag shoved into the side of the pot. “Never mind,” you thought, “I’ll read it later.”

Thus begins most gardening tragedies played out during the growing season. Enthusiastic gardeners fall hard for a gorgeous plant but fail to take a few moments to read the tag – which lists everything the plant will need to thrive. And often, the result is a disappointment. So, before you reach into your wallet to purchase your brand-new hibiscus, hosta, or hyssop, here’s a list of things you will see on the tag and what they mean.

Common and Botanical Names

The information on a plant tag is there to help you. Breeders and growers want you to succeed with the plants they have nurtured and brought to market. The problem is, sometimes they assume the consumer understands the botanical code they have listed on the tags to describe their plants.

All tags will include the common and botanical name of the plant. But why do we need both? To start, common names can vary from region to region; the botanical name, however, is a universal scientific moniker that identifies one – and only one – species.

Botanical names can also give you clues to the nature of the plant. The word “officinalis” in the botanical name for an herb like lemon balm {Melissa officinalis} tells us that it was once part of the official list of approved medicinal herbs. Other words speak to the desired characteristic; for instance, if you buy a plant called Ocimum x citriodorum, you are purchasing basil {Ocimum} with a citrus aroma {citriodorum}.

In the age of Google, where we search online for everything under the sun, knowing the scientific name can also help you sift through the fray and zero in on the plant in question. {And in the age of smartphones, you can do this right at the nursery!} Simply searching for “sage” will bring up all kinds of sources – everything from the Merriam-Webster definition of the herb to a list of companies with “Sage” in their title. Not very helpful! But if you search for “Salvia gregii” or “Salvia officinalis,” you will quickly home in on more reliable information about the plant and how to grow it. When researching a plant, your best bet is to use the scientific name to avoid any confusion.

Average Height and Width

Nearly every plant you buy at the nursery is young and small. Knowing how big it will get helps you to plant it where it will get enough room. But some gardeners do not believe what they read on the tag. “This cute little rosemary won’t really get as big as five feet in diameter…” But if you ignore the tag and plant the herb in a spot that’s only two square feet, you’re asking for trouble. If you choose a spot with the right amount of room, you will have less work and a happier rosemary.

Sun Exposure

Another piece of information that gardeners tend to ignore is the plant’s sunlight needs. If the label states “full sun” that means it needs at least four hours of direct sunlight. If your garden doesn’t get that amount of sunlight, then this is not the right plant for you. A few hours of filtered sun won’t make it grow. And a plant that doesn’t get enough sun will starve.

On the flip side, a shade-loving plant will wither and die if you site it in a spot with all-day direct sunshine. Don’t kill your precious plants by placing them where they will receive the wrong sun exposure.

Hardiness Zones

In 1960, the USDA created a series of hardiness zones for North America to help farmers and gardeners know which species grow best in their area. These zones are based on the average yearly winter-low temperature, divided into 10 degree F zones. Most nursery tags include the plant’s USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, telling you, essentially, the lowest winter temperature in which the plant can survive. Know your home zone before you start shopping. If a plant tag lists “Zones 4-8” and you live on the border between Zones 3 and 4, this plant may not perform reliably. But plants labeled Zones 2-5 are likely to thrive in your garden.

This measure of winter hardiness serves as a good start, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, Zone 6 includes Boston, MA, on the East Coast, Santa Fe, NM, in the Southwest, and Spokane, WA, on the West Coast. Obviously, these three locations have very different climates, so while growing zones are helpful, they are only part of the picture.

Water Needs

Plants don’t just need water – they need the correct amount of water. Getting too much or too little will either stunt the plant’s growth or kill it outright. Pay attention to the water requirements shown on the tag – not only to determine its watering schedule but also where to plant it. If you have a slow-draining spot that tends to get boggy, a plant like lavender will not succeed in that area. Conversely, if your spot drains quickly and you do not have time to water every day, you will want to look for more drought-tolerant species such as yarrow or geranium.

Other Information:

More thorough tags may also include warnings and cautions. Notes such as “self-sows easily” can warn you that the species may take over your garden. Growth habits like “climbing” or “trailing” are also sometimes noted.

Bottom Line:

Read the plant tags! Knowing how to decipher them will provide a good start to a long and happy relationship with {most} any plant that catches your eye.