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
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
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
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.