116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Here in Iowa, plant markers are a tricky thing. I’ve lived here 30 years and struggled all that time to find inexpensive, lasting, attractive markers that are easy to make.
In our harsh climate, plant markers rust. They crack. The permanent marker fades out after just a few months. Or you have to special order them, specifying the wording you want, and they’re expensive. Or they’re just plant ugly. I’m no fan of the plastic strips from a labeler, affixed to stainless steel bases. And the little white plastic markers end up looking like dozens of tiny gravestones, dotting my flower beds.
So I did what any good farm girl would do: I invented my own.
The plant markers I came up with are sturdy and have so far lasted through two Iowa winters and summers, and take just a few minutes each to make without special tools. They are attractive and are visible enough to read but don’t stick out like a sore thumb, like those white plastic labels.
The secret ingredient is bakeable polymer clay. You work it like any other clay, but then bake it at a low temperature to permanently harden it. It’s available in smaller packages, but it’s far more economical to buy in bulk. (Be sure to get the type that bakes hard, rather than staying pliable.) Choose whatever brand or color you want, but so far my favorite is Polyform Sculpey Original Polymer Clay in Terra Cotta. It was $17 for 1.75 pounds on Amazon but is also is available in most craft stores. I have found it will create several dozen plant labels.
You can make the markers a couple of different ways. The more involved method, detailed here, is basically pressing the clay around a landscape staple, readily available at better-stocked garden centers. Landscape stables cost about $10 for 50. That puts the total cost per stake around 50 cents.
You can just cut the clay into fat strips to write on, bake, and then insert into the soil for the simplest and fastest of labels.
Here’s how to make the fancier plant markers:
1. If you want, bend the landscape staple so the top is at a 45-degree angle. This makes for easier reading of the label in the garden. Bend it with a pair of pliers or by putting the tip in a clamp and bending the wires with your hand.
2. Knead and roll out the clay. You can do it on any nearly any smooth surface, but I use a silicon craft mat to keep my tabletop clean.
3. With a straight edge, cut the clay to the desired size and shape.
4. Write the plant name in the clay. This is the hardest part, and you’ll want to experiment a bit. You can use nearly any sharp object, but a straightened landscape staple works fairly well.
5. Fold the other half of the clay down over the staple and press firmly. Use the knife to trim up the rectangle, if needed.
6. Place on a baking tray. Bake according to package directions. The brand I used recommended 275 degrees for 15 minutes for every 1/4 inch. I find I get better hardness if I bake the clay longer. For the labels here, I’d recommend one hour.
I’d love to hear how your plant marker experience went, and how they held up for you in your garden. Or maybe you’ve had luck with other types of plant markers. Finding plant labels that are easy, attractive, and affordable has been a three-decade quest, so email me at email@example.com and let me know.
Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.