PHOTO: Garden row markers painted in chalkboard paint and labeled in white chalk.

Best. Plant labels. Ever.

One of the best things about visiting (and working at!) the Chicago Botanic Garden: you get great ideas for your own garden.

I put one of them to work in my new “all vegetable” front yard garden this weekend.

Horticulture program specialist Nancy Clifton faced the challenge of labeling dozens of different heirloom tomato varieties in containers. Her solution was simple and elegant: gather up the paint stirrers and get out the chalkboard paint!

BEFORE:  Clean out the paint shelf! Old paint stirrers, stakes, and even wooden spoons can work as plant markers.
Before: Clean out the paint shelf! Old paint stirrers, stakes, and even wooden spoons work as plant markers.
PHOTO: Plant labels painted with two coats of chalkboard paint.
After: Two coats of chalkboard paint ought to do it. Tip: Looks better when you paint the sides, too.

The photos are testament to how easy it is: assemble a pile of paintable wooden markers-to-be, scrub-brush lightly under running water, and let dry. (No need to overdo it on the pre-cleaning—the paint covers most everything.) On a fine spring day, apply two coats of chalkboard paint. I went for black, but you can have the white base paint tinted any color. (Ooh! Lime green would have been good!) Let paint dry between coats.

PHOTO: Pile of black plant markers with names inscribed.
A pile of tomato markers await 50 degree-plus nights before the tomatoes can go in.

To write the names,  I used the same basic white grease pencil—found at any art store—that’s used on the metal signs at the Garden. It withstands rain, wind, and dirty hands.

Like many gardeners, I’ve tried lots of different methods for labeling over the years: Popsicle sticks (disintegrate fast, get stepped on), zinc and copper markers (too small to read from a distance, get stepped on), and rocks (hard to keep in one spot). This approach is simple, recyclable, nice looking, and kind of fun to do—makes a good kid project, too!

Can’t wait to get those tomatoes in the ground…

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Published by

Karen Z.

Karen Zaworski is a writer who likes to use as few words as possible, a photographer who still works with black-and-white film and a darkroom, and a gardener who actually likes to weed.

6 thoughts on “Best. Plant labels. Ever.”

  1. Some art stores/sites carry grease pencils in colors–yellow and orange work on the black chalkboard paint, too. Happy gardening!

  2. Thanks! Any idea where to buy the larger informative chalkboard signs that are next to specimens at the gardens? They have just enough room to write, “We prune these mid July for more blooms.”

    1. Yes, great question–while we typically don’t promote sources online, happy to send information your way privately.

  3. These are great! I’m at small nature center and we were investigating the larger “chalkboard” signs you have. We wondered if you would be able to email us information about where you source those from. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    1. Hello, Shamim, thanks for your inquiry. We are forwarding information about those signs to the email address you provided. Hope it’s helpful!

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