Good Sense or Obsession?

Do you know the names of the plants in your garden?

Many gardeners don’t care about plant names, but knowing the names of those in your garden can be helpful.

The common names for plants are useful in the same way that all names are useful: they identify a particular person, place or thing: you can identify and refer to each plant with accuracy. Rather than saying “that plant with small red blossoms and fancy leaves by the birdbath,” you can say, “the geranium by the birdbath.” (Another common name for the geranium is “stork’s bill,” referring to the shape of the seed.)

More precisely, you could use the plant’s botanical name: “the Pelargonium sanguineum by the birdbath,” or, in the case of a hybrid, “the Pelargonium ‘Rozanne’ by the birdbath.”

Advanced info: the plant commonly called a geranium is really a member of the genus Pelargonium. The true geranium, also called a “hardy geranium,” is a member of the genus Geranium.

When a friend admires a blossom and asks, ““What plant is that?” and you know it only as “that small plant with small red blossoms and fancy leaves,” you can say, apologetically, “I don’t know,” or defiantly, “The name doesn’t matter, I only care that it adds color to my garden.” Either response won’t satisfy you or your friend.

Once you have identified a plant’s botanical name, however, you identify the plant for your friend, look up cultivation advice on the Internet, find in the plant in a garden book, or ask for it at a garden center. And tell the difference between a Geranium and a Pelargonium.

Most gardeners will have difficulty remembering the botanical names of all the plants in a large garden. Some will put plant labels next to the plants as memory aids. This practice can become a “time-suck” because labels fade, become buried or disappear mysteriously.

Also, for some gardeners, plant labels are intrusions on the garden’s natural appearance.

The non-label option is the garden map. This can be a simple sketch of the entire garden or (more commonly) each planting bed in the garden, with plants represented by shapes of various sizes, and with plant names by the shapes or on a numbered list. The simpler the sketch, the easier it is to keep current as plants are added, subtracted, moved or expired.

Several specialized drawing tools can be found on the Internet, either free or low in cost, to make more formal garden maps. Most are simple to use and handy for planning a vegetable garden, but they generate rather stiff-looking diagrams, rather than a picture of an ornamental planting.

Enjoy mapping your garden!


There are several software applications for planning and laying out an edible garden, and a few for designing an ornamental garden (not that veggies can’t be attractive!). Those vegetable garden planners that I’ve seen have excellent information and rather limited graphics. They work best for utilitarian projects, in which efficient use of space is more important than the visual effect.

If you want to plan an edible garden, take a look at this sample of software products (see others online by searching for “garden planner”).

Kitchen Garden Planner by Gardener’s Supply

PlanGarden by

Vegetable Garden Planner by Mother Earth News

A very good (perhaps the best) vegetable garden planner:

WikiGrow by LocalGrow

The best tool I’ve found for mapping an ornamental landscape is the following:

Garden Planner, Version 3.0 by smallblueprinter

This inexpensive application supports drawing an irregularly shaped planting bed (like mine), in addition to rectangular vegetable gardens, and representing plants with unique symbols. Mapping a large and full bed takes time, but this software makes the task much easier than using commercial graphics software, e.g., Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator (and much less expensive as well). I will post the result of my efforts in the near future.

2 thoughts on “Good Sense or Obsession?

  1. Thanks for this article. We’d like to turn over a new leaf and start learning the names of our plants. Can you recommend a book that would help us–with color photos, scientific and common names, and maybe a paragraph about the plant. We live in Monterey CA and have a variety of shrubs, trees, grasses, perennials, annuals, and rocks! Many thanks.

    • Wendy,

      I responded to your question in my column, “A Rose by Any Other Name…” (Saturday, April 7th). Let me know if helps!


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