Garden Tagging The National Trust Way

Gardening Gone Wild's (GGW) design theme is all about plant labelling and records this month and last time I wrote about my own tagging and record keeping. This post's about my experiences from volunteering at the National Trust's (NT) HQ in Swindon. The guy I do the voluntary work for is the NT's plant curator, meaning he's responsible for ensuring there's a good methodology in place for labelling and record keeping its hundreds of thousands of plants in the 200-odd gardens in its care, and also for looking after the Trust's plant database.

Until now, the recommended way has been to label major trees and shrubs with small, unobtrusive aluminium tags like the ones shown above. I've found quite a few of these whilst trawling through the Trust's gardening archive boxes - each tag I find represents a dead plant. I've also found long 'labels lists' i.e. lists of plants a Head Gardener (HG) sends to HQ, so that interpretive labels can be ordered centrally and issued for 'planting' in the garden - used particularly for the herbaceous elements where tags would fall off when the plant dies down.

For some of the major gardens, the plant details and tag IDs have been entered onto the Trust's database as well as the records kept at the garden. I've also found the results of various plant surveys plotted onto large maps (large table sized in some instances) and scale drawings of the garden, each painstakingly replotted or redrawn after each survey or garden revamp. I've also had the pleasure of finding planting plans drawn by Graham Stuart Thomas and copies of Vita Sackville-West's garden notebooks from Sissinghurst whilst trawling through the (mainly mundane) archives. These are just a fraction of the plans, task and planting records kept at the individual gardens.

All this is rather cumbersome to maintain and only a handful of gardens have been well documented on the database until now - about 5% of the Trust's total garden treasures. Thus there isn't really an overall idea of the tremendous resource looked after on the nation's behalf, a resource that's not only historically important, but is potentially significant genetically too.

Last year Yorkshire Bank made a huge donation spread over a three-year period. If you become involved in the NT's Outdoor Programme of events like Greener Gardens or the Plant Hunters project, then you're also seeing how some of this money is being spent. Behind the scenes I've been involved in planning the Plant Hunters project, a survey and documentation of 80 of the Trust's key gardens - including the Trust's 20 working kitchen gardens. Each garden now has its own digital camera and the identity and location of each plant will be recorded using GPS technology. These records (GPS and selected digital images) will then be used to update a new plant database available both at NT HQ and at each garden. Thus every plant will have its own 'virtual' tag and photographic record plus new garden plans will be plotted and published. At the same time plants which merit conservation because of their historic, genetic or other significant importance will be identified for propagation by the Trust's specialist unit at Knightshayes Court in Devon.

That's a major step forward for the Trust, but it doesn't really help the garden visitor who can't identify a particular plant. Sylvia remarked at GGW on how well the Abbey House Gardens near here in Malmesbury are labelled. That might be so, but they'd been moved around so much when I visited 2 years ago, most of them were with the wrong plants. Luckily I was with 2 expert botanist friends who could help me identify those I didn't know. Oxford University Botanic Garden is the best for labelling I've found so far, but a well labelled garden whilst useful to visitors, can look rather unsightly and isn't usually wanted by many of the Trust's Head Gardeners either.

One solution is to have interpretation boards by the beds. Those seen at the RHS Inner Temple Show last September (see above) were particularly welcomed by attendees, who were heard to exclaim over a particular cultivar whilst rushing to the board to find out their new 'must have' plant for their garden. I've seen similar examples at various NT Gardens, plus photographs on display at central points (such as the shop), showing which blooms are at their best at that moment. A number of gardens also have leaflets available (some free, others to buy) showing various combinations of planting plans, photographs or details of significant collections. A cheerful member of staff or volunteer can usually be found to help with particular plant IDs if they're needed.

So whilst the Trust has much larger gardens to look after than most of us, you can see they also tussle with the best way to keep records and labelling up to date. They do have the added dimension of aesthetics versus visitor information. The GPS solution is particularly innovative, but probably not the way forward for most of us. It'll be interesting to see how this project progresses over the next couple of years and whether subsequent record keeping is easier.

Have you seen anything on your own garden visits (National Trust or any other garden) which you thought was a particularly good idea?


  1. I wasnt impressed with the labelling at the Abbey Gardens at Malmesbury. I went last summer and some of the labels were so weathered that you couldnt read them.

  2. Good point PG - there's a whole article potentially about which type of label. It must be a nightmare for garden owners that do go down the labelling route - broken, weathered, missing and moved have to be coped with!

  3. I haven't seen any labels that I thought were particularly effective. I guess I think a well-done label is unobtrusive enough not to notice if I don't want to, but there if I need it...

    On a local public garden here I notice that the labels for old plants are left in place, even if the new plants are completely different. Must confuse a few beginners...

  4. Hi Susan - that's the thing isn't it? If they're mislabelled, then that's as bad as no labels at all. Sods law dictates that the one plant I want to know is the mislabelled or missing one. That's why the border plan shown in my post was so good - inobtrusive, but the correct information there as soon as it was needed.

  5. Being slightly disabled I do find it hard to read those close to the ground. On a more positive note I was planning to encourage use of these.
    as I find the scientific name type label offputting to some people. From a cataloguing point of view why haven't the NT experimented with RID tags as used by say supermarkets and warehouses ?

  6. Hi Hermes - those interpret labels are an improvement aren't they? I seem to remember Arabella Sock showing them in use in the UK when she visited Architectural Plants (?)last year. However, in a public garden context they will still have the same issues re moving, weathering etc. as PG and Susan have spoken about already.

    I've not come across any other options looked at the National Trust, so can't comment on RID tags. I also need to find out what they are :)

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Oops that didn't work, so let's try again:

    Hi Hermes - I've now looked up RFID tags and realised I've used them myself in fisheries tracking projects. Yes, they could be a useful option for the Trust too. I still don't know whether they were looked at and not chosen though and will ask on my next volunteer day.

    If anyone else is interested in what we're talking about, here's what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

    RIFD Tags

  9. Hi VP,

    I have yet to see anything that really looks good! Our own botanical garden is guilty of not consistently labeling plants...very frustrating because docents are not ever around when you need them to id a plant! At the very least they could post a list of plants in each bed...I can look them up later!


  10. It's fascinating to see what others do with labels, and how many of us share similar exasperations. Even botanical gardens and parks have their challenges; I get cranky in the extreme when I go to such a public place and find that people have stolen plant labels. Or the plants have died (or, sadly in some cases, been stolen) and the label remains. I don't know what the answer is to these quandaries, human nature being what it is...

  11. I do think that the garden interpretation plan is a great idea. It contains the relevant information, is weatherproof and is not likely to be removed by human or squirrel. I often find that the one label I am keen to find has as you have encountered, either gone awol or is mislabeled. Just as frustrating is the label in no man's land inconsiderately located between one plant and another !

  12. I haven't found any labelling system I'd like to copy. It's particularly problematic when the label refers to a bulb that is dormant, not the stunning annual planted over it.

  13. This really was a fascinating read, VP. It's funny (and sad) that even botanical gardens keep piles of tags from dead plants. And GPS mapping? How high-tech! The labeled map board was terrific; I'd like to use that idea for the gardens I maintain at work.

  14. Gail - it seems there isn't a good compromise between good information and aesthetics. However, I do think the labelled garden plan is good step forward.

    Jodi - I wonder who on earth would steal labels!?! And yes, I get a tad annoyed when the plants I can't identify aren't labelled. However, I do like to view the garden too.

    MMD - isn't that always the way?

    Nan - so glad you found an idea to take away from here.


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