A plant tag can tell you everything you need to know about taking care of a new plant, but first you need to decode and interpret information from the gardening symbols. This guide will explain what information can be found on a plant tag, the plant care symbol meanings and how to apply this information when gardening. Once you know how to read a plant tag, you will be ready to care for any plant as soon as you take it home.
Common and Scientific Names
The front of a plant label will have the plant’s common name and scientific name, usually accompanied by a photo of the fully-grown plant. The scientific name may appear in italics underneath the common name or lower down on the front of the tag. When searching for a specific plant or plants within the same family, use the scientific name for the most accurate identification.
Mature Size and Shape
The plant label will list measurements and descriptions of the plant’s fully grown size so you can best plan where to place it in your home or garden.
- Height: The plant’s mature height is typically listed on the front and back of the tag. The height will be measured in inches or centimeters and will be listed as a range, from the minimum average height to the maximum average height. While the plant could grow above or below this range, depending on certain environmental factors, you can trust these measurements.
- Spread: The spread is how wide you can expect the plant to grow. If they are listed on the plant tag, spread measurements will be a range listed below height and will also be measured in inches or centimeters.
- Habit: The habit or shape of the plant describes how it grows and its general form. Common examples of habits are mounding, trailing and upright. This will help you when selecting plants for landscaping.
- Spacing: Spacing will tell you how much distance to put between each plant so that they can comfortably grow. The general rule in gardening is to space the plants according to their expected mature width. Appropriate spacing is important when planting. Without enough space between plants, you may experience crowding, stunted roots or other growth problems.
Tip: If the plant tag does not list the spread, you can get an idea of how wide the plant will grow by how much spacing you must give it.
How much sun exposure a plant needs will either be written out or represented by an icon of the sun that may be partially or fully shaded. In general, there are three degrees of sun tolerance: full sun, partial sun/shade and full shade.
- Full sun: Usually depicted by a sun icon, full sun means the plant should get at least six hours (but sometimes closer to eight or ten hours) of direct sunlight in a day.
- Partial sun/shade: This icon appears as a half-shaded sun. Plants that require partial sun should get four to six hours of direct sunlight per day.
- Full shade: Plants that need full shade will have a sun icon that is completely shaded in on their plant tags. Full shade plants enjoy environments that receive only indirect sunlight or less than three hours of direct sunlight per day.
Water requirements may be written out in detail or shown as raindrop icons. A plant label may also list the water requirements by saying the soil should be “dry/well-drained,” “normal” or “moist.”
- Dry or well-drained soil: Indicated by one raindrop icon, maintaining dry soil means allowing the soil to dry completely between waterings. Even the soil below the top inch should be dry before watering again.
- Normal: Often indicated by two raindrops, normal means keeping the soil an inch below the surface moist. Allow the top inch of soil – but no more – to dry out before watering again.
- Moist: Moist soil or three raindrops means the soil should always stay moist. Water frequently to prevent the soil from drying out, but do not water to the point that excess water pools on the surface of the soil.
Tip: Remember that new plants typically require daily watering for the first six months as they establish their root systems. Additionally, potted plants will always require regular watering and will never be drought tolerant.
The zones listed on the back of a plant tag refer to the USDA Hardiness Zones, which measure the lowest winter temperature a plant can survive. The USDA Hardiness Zones are divided into eleven planting zones, whose average winter temperatures differ from their neighboring zones by an average of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Learning which zone you live in is a helpful parameter for knowing which plants, particularly perennials, can survive in your climate.
If you are unfamiliar with zones, however, most plant tags will also list below the zone a minimum temperature the plant can endure. Look for the phrase “hardy to...” followed by a temperature, which indicates the coldest the plant can survive.
You may also find a related section for “Blooms.” “Blooms” indicates what time of year the plant flowers, which may vary based on your climate and hardiness zone. When planting, remember to take both the hardiness zone and blooming season into consideration to ensure you are not planting too late or too early in the season.
A section for fertilizer specifications may appear on the plant label, or fertilization may be bundled into the “Features” section. Sometimes, no mention of fertilization is present, and you will have to do your own research in this area.
If this section does appear, it will tell you how often to feed the plant for optimal growth. Many annuals require regular fertilization.
The tag may tell you the plant’s best “use.” This is a recommendation based on both the popular applications of the plant and where the plant grows well. For example, this section may tell you the plant grows best in a container or that the plant is used as ground covering. Although you do not have to follow it, the use recommendation can be a helpful guideline for beginner landscapers and gardeners.
Care and Features
The back of the plant label often has additional notes about the plant’s features and care instructions. These notes may include specific planting tips, interesting facts about the plant, the plant’s drought and heat tolerance, when and how to deadhead or wildlife interactions. The most detailed plant tags will have enough care and feature notes to give you a clear idea of the plant’s unique needs without requiring additional research.
Once you understand how to read them, plant tags hold a wealth of information that you will need to properly care for your garden. Always save your plant tags and store them in a safe place for future reference after planting.
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