A garden sign is a versatile element in any landscape. It can provide information such as a plant’s identity or a garden’s theme, direct visitors to or through the garden, inspire the gardener and visitors with a favorite quote or proverb, even make us laugh.
I came to appreciate the importance of garden signs when my husband and I bought our current home seven years ago. I set about designing and planting a formal, segmented herb garden with a silver bed, a kitchen bed, a hummingbird bed, and so forth, but I soon realized that people other than myself might not know which bed was which. I needed signs so that friends and other visitors would know my interests and what I was trying to accomplish with each bed.
I suppose I could have bought signs at the nearest garden center, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to create garden signs that would reflect my own personality. I rummaged through the garage, where we stash all sorts of discards. Before long, I was constructing signs from stones, old shovels and other retired gardening tools, clay pots, remnant pieces of wood, weathered watering cans, even damaged picture frames.
To ensure that my signs add character to my gardens without detracting from the beauty of the plants or cluttering up the beds, I use them discreetly as accent pieces. A garden sign can be as simple as a smooth stone with a plant’s name painted on it. It’s not only more interesting and durable than a plastic stake, it also harmonizes nicely with the surrounding landscape. I find that cleverly designed signs tucked among the plants add an element of surprise to a garden bed; visitors discover them as if by accident.
It goes without saying that signs and labels also serve practical purposes. Gardeners for whom botanical names are important rely on signs to jog their recall of a plant’s proper name. A sign can mark the spot where a plant has died back for the winter. It keeps me from inadvertently unearthing it when I install additional plants or loosen the soil in that area. And labels enable visitors to stroll through the garden at their leisure without having to find me to identify the plants that are unfamiliar to them.
Materials and techniques
Although garden centers and mail-order catalogs offer ready-made signs, the selection is limited, and the cost can mount up if you need a lot of them. By contrast, making your own signs is easy, inexpensive, fun, and personal. Don’t think that you have to be an artist; you just need to know a few tricks.
Just about anything can be made into a garden sign. Choose materials that are in keeping with your gardening style, whether it’s formal or free-form and eclectic. Wooden signs are appropriate for many types of gardens; redwood and cedar last the longest outdoors. Unless you are going for a rustic look, wooden signs may look better—and almost certainly last longer—if you give them a coat of paint before lettering them. An exterior house paint works well; for best results, first apply the undercoat (primer) recommended on the label. Most metal or stone objects require only a good washing before you paint them.
Don’t think that you have to be an artist; you just need
to know a few tricks.
The secret to a professional-looking sign is in the lettering. Because neat, uniform letters are difficult to paint freehand, I recommend that you trace the letters onto your sign first, then paint them. Where do you get traceable lettering that says exactly what you want? If you have a home computer, just print out your wording in the exact size and font you want. Choose large, rounded, simple letters; fancy fonts can be difficult to paint. If you don’t have a computer, a lettering or alphabet book from an art supply store is inexpensive and contains many different fonts. Use a copy machine to reduce or enlarge the letters to the size you need.
After you have chosen your lettering and written or printed out your message on paper, lay a piece of carbon paper, ink side down, on top of the sign. (If you are transferring lettering onto a dark surface, such as black slate, use white transfer paper, which is available at craft stores.) Place the paper containing your message on top and trace the outline of the letters firmly with a ballpoint pen or pencil.
Remove the paper. If there are places on the sign where the letters are not clear, go over them with a pencil or ballpoint in a color that contrasts with the background; use an ordinary graphite pencil on a light sign, a white one on a dark sign. Now you’re ready to paint. Acrylic artist’s paints wear well, are easy to work with, and clean up with soap and water. Choose a color and carefully outline and then fill in the letters using a small, flat artist’s brush (sizes 2 to 4 work well for most signs). When you’ve finished the lettering, spray or brush the sign with clear acrylic to protect it from the elements.
If your sign needs a mount, you can easily add a stake of any size to position the sign exactly where you want it in the garden. You’ll see from the photographs here that I’ve used many materials as stakes, from old broom handles to fence pickets and even sturdy branches. Attach the sign to the stake firmly with nails or wire. Now it’s ready for display in the garden.
Theresa Loe is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. She lives in El Segundo, California.