Knowing what plant is suited to your garden is a question asked by all gardeners – from novice to expert.
Understanding how to read a plant or seed label or description will help guide you to successful plantings.
Whether you are planning flower beds or a vegetable garden, buying seeds or shopping for plants; the beautiful plant photos can easily lure us into misinformed purchases. Plant tags, labels and seed packets offer information about the plant’s light needs, soil preference, space required and more, which can help narrow selections but more importantly will help you locate plants that will thrive in your garden.
Here is a simple list that will help you decode the labels before making your selections.
Perennial, Biennial or Annual
First, let’s define these three important terms.
The difference is the plant’s life cycle. Annual plants sprout, bloom, set seed and die all in one year. Biennial plants have a life cycle of two years so they germinate and grow one year, bloom and die the following. Everything which lasts longer than two years is Perennial, which in practical terms usually means it grows and flowers for many years.
Sun or Shade
Plants need sunlight to to live, though some plants require lower light levels and others need much more.
FULL SUN means the plant requires 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day
SHADE usually means 3 hours of sun per day
PART SUN or PARTIAL SHADE will be in between, or dappled sunlight, or between 4-6 hours per day.
Before choosing plants, take some time to note the duration of sunlight around your planting areas and at what time of day it is sunny or shady.
Perennial plants and some seeds are labelled with the hardiness zone which ranges from 0 to 9. These indicate regional areas and determine what plant will grow in the region. Sometimes it is indicated as a range.
You can search and find your zone by municipality on the Government of Canada’s website here. Below is a map & key that shows the difference zones in southern Ontario. Follow the link under the image to use the interactive map.
Depth & Spacing
These details outline how deep to plant and how far apart to space the seeds or plant. This is determined by how wide the plants will be at maturity.
Spacing can be a personal decision as cottage gardeners may wish to place annuals and perennials closer together for more impact, whereas vegetable gardeners will allow more space to access the crop.
Trees and shrubs should be carefully spaced according to the labels to allow for their growth. Planting them too close to the house or walkways will eventually cause issues.
DROUGHT TOLERANT means that this plant has adaptations that allow them to survive periods where there is no water. This plant requires a small amount of water on occasion.
AVERAGE WATER means that this plant can be watered every time the soil dries out.
The botanical name or latin name will tell you exactly what you are purchasing and will aid you in it’s precise care instructions. There are many trademarked, nicknamed or company names, but those are not the botanical names. The latin or botanical name is a global standard naming system that will properly identify your plant. Different cultivars or varieties of the same plant may have differing care needs, so pay close attention to their proper name!
It is a good idea to hang onto or file the labels or tags for perennials, trees and shrubs in case you ever need to seek advice on care. The scientific names for annuals are less important unless you are keen on a specific brand or shade of Petunia (for example) you wish to remember for future seasons.