Bamboo Plant Labels: how to make them last
May 4, 2016 5:19 AM   Subscribe

We have been labeling plants in a public garden with 1 inch bamboo and black text printed on clear all weather label tape. These labels don't last as long as we'd like them to and we're looking for ideas on how to fix this so we don't have to replace 40% of them each year.

We are currently using HGe-S strong adhesive high grade clear tape and printing 36 point font using a Brother P-touch 9700PC. The bamboo is via AM. Leonard.

Here is a photo of an example of one of these labels.

The problems we are having are: the label unsticks itself at the edges and/or the bamboo cracks and decays. Since there are a few hundred of these labels, removing them in the late fall and putting them up again in the spring would be painful - remembering where a totally invisible plant is in the early spring is lots of fun, not to mention the 25 or so hydrangea cultivars that I'm awful at distinguishing. (Yes, plant maps are on our to do list, but likely won't happen until next year or later).

I've had two thoughts on how to help either or both of these problems but am seeking additional information because google is kind of failing me on both.

1. Can we seal the bamboo after the label goes on to encourage the label to stay on and the bamboo to not crack? What kind of sealant? I've heard that bamboo, because it is very smooth, doesn't take well to being dipped in something like polyurethane.

2. Is there a vaguely cost effective way of laser burning the text on the bamboo? We've already thrown a bunch of money into label tape so an additional $1000 (or more if it really works well) is probably reasonable. Bamboo is an irregular cylinder so I'm wondering if this is a pain in the butt or something that people deal with frequently who do this sort of thing.

3. Are we using the right kind of bamboo for this? Is there better, longer lasting bamboo that doesn't cost a huge amount more than we're already paying?

4. If we have to change our material from bamboo to something else, we are quite concerned about how things look and would like to keep it a natural material and have zero interest in something plastic or metal. In my opinion, those metal labels make gardens look like cemeteries with lots of grave markers.
posted by sciencegeek to Grab Bag (17 answers total)
It sounds like this season might be a good time to run an experiment and try a few different methods - Consider marking the sticks with additional codes (out of the way) to indicate your sealing method.

In this situation I would try at least two that come to mind: put on the label, spraying with a urethane all weather clear coat or using a spar varnish painted over the label portion only (rather than dipping the entire stick).
posted by Karaage at 5:35 AM on May 4, 2016

You could try covering the whole thing with clear heat-shrink tubing.
posted by flabdablet at 6:04 AM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another idea: branding irons.

Strikes me as a little tedious though.
posted by Karaage at 6:13 AM on May 4, 2016

If you can find a local 'hackerspace' with a laser cutter, you could get then all laser-cut for just the cost of materials and somebody's time.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:18 AM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am at a local hackerspace with a laser cutter, and would be glad to do some tests to see if engraving looks useful. I'd be afraid that the contrast would be very low or would fade quickly, but it's worth a try!
posted by moonmilk at 6:28 AM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't engrave them, I'd cut right through (using a stencil font)
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:31 AM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

The outermost layer of the epidermis of a bamboo plant is covered with a non-porous, silica-based waxy substance.

Chemically, structurally--it's basically the same thing as shoe polish, car wax, the stuff that the factory puts on leather goods to make them water resistant.

It's why bamboo doesn't absorb stain well, and why paint or your lettering won't adhere.

Solution: you need to sand away the waxy coating. Use 80 to 120 grit sandpaper, and sand until all of the shine is gone, or until you can just feel a change of texture from waxy to something more like wood.

That'll solve the problem with stuff not sticking.

As for splitting, not a whole lot you can do, but you can try two things

1) Pre-split the bamboo at the ends


2) tie metal wire tightly around the ends if you see splits starting to form.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 6:49 AM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

After sanding (just wrap a piece of sandpaper around the bamboo and twist/slide it up and down a bit) and attaching your labels, apply a coat of outdoor Mod-Podge. That should keep the labels from lifting. I use it to keep the labels stuck down on my kids' drink bottles. It works well, but having a slightly roughened surface for everything to stick to helps a lot.

For the splitting, half an inch of heat-shrink tubing around the end would probably help, and gives you the option of a bit of colour in case you want to make your tags a bit more eye-catching.
posted by pipeski at 7:02 AM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Small sized laser engraving machines are cheaper than you think. And laser engraving in bamboo works very well. But because you are dealing with a non-flat surfce, I would head to a hacker- or makerspace first for a try out, so you know what to expect.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:22 AM on May 4, 2016

Why not steal a page from the ancient Babylonians? Bake able modelling clay, set of metal lettertype. Cut some long thin strips of clay with a pointed end, press in your letters, bake. Maybe get some glaze or India ink to blacken the letters. There's 6,000 year old complaint letters from Ur floating around, should be able to weather a wet spring.
posted by Diablevert at 7:36 AM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Instead of bamboo, would using a laser-etched or engraved wood stake or dowel that can handle outdoors well, such as ipe, be an alternative? From a quick search, there's this place which sells dowels of many types of wood.
posted by ShooBoo at 8:20 AM on May 4, 2016

Following up on pipeski's heat-shrink idea - maybe you could use transparent heat-shrink to cover the entire label and keep it from peeling off. Though now that I think of it, the heat used to shrink the tubing might also discolor the label. Another thing that's easy to try, though!
posted by moonmilk at 9:24 AM on May 4, 2016

So yes, we should try a bunch of these ideas - heat shrink, clear coat, laser, sanding plus other options, and things other than bamboo.

I would be extremely interested in doing some tests with a laser cutter through moonmilk at your hackerspace. My ability to travel and have free time is extremely limited right now (I have a two month old kid). I will memail you to talk about possibilities.

Thank you guys so much! So great to get ideas.
posted by sciencegeek at 10:11 AM on May 4, 2016

Well since you said no metal then my suggestion would be to use Sculpey clay with carved or stamped lettering. You put it in oven to cure. Their website has clays that are hardest for outdoor use on their FAQ. You could easily get a bamboo color or terracotta color. Otherwise yeah, I think you'll have to seal the wood to keep it from cracking. The work put into keeping the bamboo the way you want it is more work than creating clay markers.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:55 AM on May 4, 2016

Clay is unlikely to work as it is fairly easily breakable and, as this is a public garden, likely to be stolen.
Also, the stakes I'm making have been 1 inch diameter and 3ft high so they can be pounded deep into the ground to discourage theft and so that the visible part is easily read from a distance thus discouraging people from walking in the flower beds. That would be a lot of clay.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:13 PM on May 4, 2016

(I work in a public garden.)

signs are tough. I'm not sure that bamboo is the answer here- shrink wrapping is a good idea, but bamboo lasts anywhere from 2 to 5 years at most in my garden... Engraving is good, as is laser cutting, but very expensive for a bamboo stake that will last outside for a few years at best. If the few years of life is okay, shrink wrap over your tape seems like a quick and painless option.

The best signs for *permanent* plant identification are embossed aluminum (which is a natural element). I recommend having those permanently attached to/buried with the rootball of the plants in your collection and then go with something else for easily readable/public facing signs. You might try something like this wooden sign with a hinged cover. They won't be cheap, but they will last longer than bamboo and the sign can be replaced easily. Otherwise many nurseries use this type of aluminum sign because the thing itself lasts forever and they are fairly readable, while public gardens usually invest in the more expensive embossed plastic. These last a very long time. I know you want more organic looking materials, but they rarely last and are really no good for permanent collections.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:15 PM on May 5, 2016

My experience with permanent labels for a collection is using something like this metal label tape system. It works quite well when you add a metal stake and wire the label to that. These are the kinds of labels that hide beneath the plants and are there for the gardeners.

We really dislike the look of the labels generally used in public gardens and are willing to do a bunch of work to continue with the look of bamboo labels.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:42 AM on May 6, 2016

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