labeling the garden’s plants, with help from nancy duffy (a.k.a. ms. muddy boots)

I GET PRESS RELEASES all the time about garden “stuff,” and most hold no interest. But a note that arrived January 9 caught my attention, because each year for probably the last 15, I’ve made the same New Year’s resolution: to label the plants in my garden. It’s been an annual fail, and repeat, and then again.

Though we’ve never met, apparently the sender of the note, Nancy Duffy, a North Carolina-based garden designer with an extensive home garden of her own, has either been spying on me remotely, or can read minds—or so it seems based on this paragraph in the message (echoed on her website):

“Bags of saved tags. Scattered notes in journals. Streams of photos on the phone and computer. Wouldn’t it be nice to have all of your plant records in one place?”

Both in her clients’ gardens and her own, Nancy says, she’d watched this frustrating scene play out too many times:

“Someone asks the name of a plant, and the garden owner says, ‘I’ll tell you what it is; just give me a second,’ while crawling around in the dirt.”

That’s me, especially on Open Days with many people asking questions—and that sense of clutter and confusion was also what woke Nancy up one night in July 2016, with an “aha” about how to finally solve it all. The sleep-interrupting scheme involved help from her software-developer husband, Dennis.

To the rescue: Nancy and Dennis’s new homegrown project called Muddy Boots Plant Tags, an entire subscription-based garden record-keeping system that incorporates long-lasting, UV-coated aluminum labels imprinted with scannable QR codes that we can “read” with our cellphones (like in the photo up top, which you can click to see the corresponding garden records in Nancy’s own account). You know those increasingly ubiquitous, abstract-looking black squares on present on other products—including plants at the garden center. Those.

Here’s the fun part: Besides labeling your plants with scannable tags, the Muddy Boots system allows you to enter comprehensive, illustrated records for every plant, plus provides garden-journaling software and a photo gallery system.

Yes, you can input individual plant records, but the Muddy Boots system also works like an interactive, sortable garden journal. You can also put in photos that are not plant-centric:

  • You can photographically track the start-to-finish progress of a project, like Nancy’s “pond project.”
  • You can organize all the photos you took on a garden tour you went on, for instance, like Nancy’s 2015 trip with her sister to Chanticleer in Pennsylvania.
  • You can assign a keyword to certain records—say, if you want to keep all your pruning records in one place, or scroll through all the photos of the family pet in the garden.
  • You can then look at all the plants in one area of your garden, for instance—like Nancy does with her enticing Western View (one such photo above).
  • Maybe best of all, you can look at your garden as a timeline and see the progress—like Nancy did by entering photos as far back as 2002 in her own garden journal area.

trying the muddy boot system, free

I HAVE NOTHING to lose (except potentially all the tangled piles of discarded tags stuffed in cabinets here), so I’m playing around with a free Muddy Boots account. Here is the basic how-to (and in more detail on Nancy and Dennis’s website):

Get an account: Sign up on the secure site for a free account, which allows you to enter up to 25 plants and 50 photos into the system (each by filling in the kind of form shows above) and try it. You don’t get any aluminum tags with the free account, but will receive a “virtual” one (to print on paper) to see how the QR code concept works, before you decide whether to subscribe to a paid account (starting at about $50/annually for up to 500 plant records) and order metal tags.

Accounts can be private, or shared (like Nancy’s records of her own extensive garden called Acorn Hill.) If you decide not to continue using the system, you can export all your data onto a spreadsheet.

Download a free code-reader app: Install a free QR-code reader app on your smartphone, such as I-nigma (for iPhone or Android), which uses the phone’s camera to “read” the tag, and would also would work at the garden center to get more information when shopping for plants. (Tip: If you’re having garden tours, like Nancy and a client who have labeled their garden with the tags are this June, tell them ahead of time to download the reader.)

How the tags work: Muddy Boots’ standard metal tags are not printed with a plant’s name (a unique ID number is on each one, as above, corresponding to a plant record in your account). But when you use your smartphone to scan a tag in the garden, what’s revealed is not just the name, but access to everything that was input along with that plant record: like where it was purchased, when it was planted, the location in your garden, photos of it in various seasons, and even whole articles about the plant from online articles that the gardener linked to the plant record. Standard tags are about $1.75 apiece if you order more than 50 at a time. Exciting news: Custom tags that will include a plant’s name, such as you would see at a botanical garden, are coming soon, for an additional price per tag.

Tags are either wired onto woody plants (wire provided) or pinned with “landscape pins” (aka “earth staples” such as you might use to pin down floating row covers) to the ground alongside a plant. Features of the plant tags.

Records can be accessed anywhere on your computer, tablet or smartphone—and garden visitors can scan a particular tag on-site and learn more about that plant, too, if they have a code reader app like I-nigma.

NANCY SOMEHOW knew just when it all came together to reach out to a stranger named Margaret up in New York State and tell her, though we’d never met before. It was right around when I was making my 2017 resolution, to…well, you know what. It has been fun to “meet” this similarly keen gardener in a couple of winter phone calls. I figured in case you, too, have a pile of saved plant tags and loads of unorganized images, you might want to “meet” Nancy, too.

So will I finally get my garden records organized?

“You have to be a little bit geeky to want to do it,” says Nancy, “because it is a new way to do things that they have always done.” Or not done, in my case…year after year after year. Will 2017 be my lucky number? Maybe so.

  1. This is an excellent idea – my garden club is always struggling to label plants that our members donate for our annual plant sale.We want to correctly identify each plant, and this could be a good way for our members to be able to keep track of what they’ve grown.
    I’m going to share this with the club !

  2. Kathie VanDevere says:

    I would like information to use as a display at a Garden History & Design Preservation Symposium, June 22 &23, 2017 in Akron, Ohio. Schedule and registration request can be forwarded separately. WE are attempting to assist the smaller historic public gardens in Ohio’s cities to research, document and achieve their landscapes and gardens. Plant identification plays a HUGE ROLE. Thank you for this innovative system.

  3. Beckie Moran says:

    Great idea. It is so much more than name tags. When I visit gardens I often take pictures. To have garden visits in one place.
    I’m often going back to my books to see when and how much I need to prune. Each tag could be an entry in my garden journal. I want to try this out.

    A wish list with pictures out of magazines and books. This tool will be my St Patty’s Day present! Lucky me.

  4. Lacey says:

    White plant tags do not sit well with my new dog’s garden aesthetics. He has sniffed out, dug up, and collected all the tags… I wonder if metal tags would fare better?

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