Loved, but Not Well Labeled

Ask Red what potatoes he grew on his plot this year, he says, "All sorts."

I can't decide: Is this is a kind of "trade secret" reticence? Or doesn't he bother about names? Then again, perhaps he labeled his spuds but his labels proceeded to do what labels do. First their words fade. And then they themselves vanish like icicles in sunshine.

Actually, I see little evidence of labeling on the plots. Joe Gallagher labels his seeds when they're sown indoors, I know, and so does Monty. But not out in the ground. They know what's where, so why label?

Maybe plot-holders (unlike nurserymen and botanists) instinctively go along with that apostle of natural gardening William Robinson. "Do not pay much attention to labeling," he advised. "If a plant is not worth knowing, it is not worth growing."

Labels are difficult. In our garden at home they are anathema anyway. The aim is a "natural look," so a host of white up-sticking plastic things ruins the effect. "Here Lies a Plant," they say, "May She/He Rest in Peace."

Worse still are the printed tags attached to the stems of plants just bought. I'm amazed how people leave them hanging disconsolately on roses or rhododendrons, sometimes for years. I strip all new plants of their labels as soon as they're planted. It's true that this means I can't recall the names of three-quarters of our beauties, but, Mr. Robinson, I wouldn't throw them out on that account. A plant worth growing doesn't need our knowing.

On the plot, though, I think labels are quite at home. I already have a pot of them in the shed labeled "Labels OK." The "OK" is a coded message of concession to the Visiting Artist, a label enthusiast who mutters darkly about my lack of them. Clearly, she is not an artist who likes the word "Untitled." In her own garden her tags tell her all.

Thus she knows the subtle differences between her globe artichokes and her cardoons - while I still haven't the faintest notion which is which. I was caught out in the summer by a similar confusion concerning garlic versus wild onions. And then there was the case of the mysterious herb that no one recognizes, possibly a sort of sorrel - but again no label.

Labels have a real function when it comes to soil-hidden potential like bulbs. I'm currently planting tulip and daffodil and Dutch iris and allium labels. Question is: Will the bulbs come up before the labels fade or vanish?

Labels are basically informative (including dates as well as names makes them even more useful), but I begin to feel I might love them more if they were sometimes more imaginative. They might even be a touch poetical now and then. One of my earlier attempts was the label for a row of cosmos flowers.

It read: "This is the Cosmos."

About this one, the VA was complimentary, saying it sounded like Ian Hamilton Finlay. Flattering, but way over the top. Finlay is a real poet, artist, sculptor, gardener, whose Scottish garden, Little Sparta, bears the same relationship to an allotment plot the Parthenon does to a hen pen.

It is a high-art, classical garden. I say this without having yet visited it, but after seeing it in an exhibition of photos. It seems to be a peripatetic meditation on place and nature. On stone tablets, ideas and provocations are inscribed. One, set horizontally, reads: "ORDER." A vertical one says, "FRAGILE." Another, like a milestone: "WAY FARING TREE 2 YDS."

The common or garden label is lifted into previously unknown regions of thought and elegance.

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