Putting Words to Pictures

Allium 'Mount Everest' at Hayefield
Tags:  Allium ‘Mount Everest’; Stipa tenuissima;  flowers; bulb; grass; white; late spring; Hayefield; side garden; house; porch; steps; path; arch; arbor; mulch; 2011

It’s hard to imagine what garden blogging would be like if we didn’t have access to digital cameras for capturing images. I suppose there must be a few gardening-focused blogs that don’t have photos, but for most of us, including pictures in our posts is a fun way to record and share the highlights of our garden through the season, and to show off our favorite plants, places, and things. Taking pictures with a digital camera is so simple that it’s easy to end up with a ridiculous amount of images over the course of a single year. Unless you find some useful way of organizing them, though, all those image files aren’t much more useful than the dusty boxes filled with old prints and slides from our pre-digital days.

To be honest, I’m the last person who should be preaching about being organized, because putting away papers, clothes, and dishes in their proper spots isn’t a high priority in my world. Spending time labeling photos is a different matter, though, because once it’s done, it’s done: barring some computer disaster, they won’t gradually become disorganized again, as physical items are wont to do. Plus, the “work” you put into organizing your photos saves loads of time in the long run, when you’re spared having to click through hundreds or thousands of images to find just what you need when you’re putting together a blog post.

Digital images get linked to a good bit of information as soon as you press the button on your camera, and this “metadata” moves along with each image as you transfer it from your camera to your computer, then move the files around on your hard drive or to other computers. Metadata contains details such as the date you took the image, the camera you used, the shutter speed, and lots of other technical stuff: possibly the location, too, if your camera has a built-in GPS capability.

Image Metadata

Professional photographers often use metadata to attach security information, such as copyright and contact details and usage rights to their images, as well. If you want to learn a bit more about metadata, here are a couple of pages to check out: Digital Photography Meta Data Overview and The Top 12 Myths about Embedded Photo Metadata.

Fortunately, for blogging purposes, we don’t really need to know the gory details of how metadata works and how to access it. What is useful is adding descriptive information, in the form of tags (also called keywords or labels), and we’re able to do that with many basic photo viewing and editing programs. For my own photos, I’ve used Photoshop Elements, but I found it kind of awkward, so I mostly use the basic Windows 7 Pictures Library window, or sometimes Windows Live Photo Gallery. If you poke around in whatever program you use to open your own picture files, you’ll probably find some option for adding descriptive tags to them.

Windows 7 Picture Library
Windows 7 Picture Library Screen

Now, here’s the interesting part: coming up with the tags you want to use. Some of them come to mind readily at first glance, especially if it’s a fairly simple image, like this one.

Eryngium yuccifolium with Amsonia hubrichtii July 2011
Tags: Eryngium yuccifolium; Amsonia hubrichtii; flowers; perennial; white; midsummer; combination; Hayefield

In this case, I first added the names of the plants. My mental filing system uses botanical names for ornamentals, common names for edibles, and both names for herbs; your brain may vary. The important thing is to use whatever name you’re likely to think of when you’re searching for that image later. It’s ideal to use exactly the same name every time, but I sometimes get careless and use different versions. At various times, for instance, I’ve used Amaranthus gangeticus ‘Elephant’s Head’, Amaranthus ‘Elephant’s Head’, and Amaranthus ‘Elephant Head’ to tag the same plant. Knowing that, I simply search for “elephant,” and images with all three of those tags come up.

Tag Search Results

Every so often, I go through my list of tags to fix multiples like this, as well as to fix spellings and other errors. That has become a bit trickier in Windows 7, but I’ve found that you can access your entire list of tags by going to Start>All Programs>Windows Media Player, then navigate to Library>Pictures>Tags. Click on the tag you want to change, open the images, change the tag, and then click Save.

Windows Media Player Photo Tags

If you keep up with changes in botanical nomenclature, you’ll also need to think about that when tagging your images. If you use Cimicifuga sometimes and Actaea at other times, a search for one of those names will miss out on all those tagged with the other name. Sometimes I tag my images with both the old and new names, but usually, I tag them with the name I learned first, because that’s what comes to my first when I want to do a search. Again, the right way is whatever way is likely to work best for you.

Plant names are just one bit of descriptive information you can add. Location is another useful sort of label. If you travel, you might use tags for the country, state, and or city, as well as the name of the garden or nursery. I rarely shoot anywhere but here at Hayefield, but I still use location tags: in this case, to indicate where in the garden I took each picture.

Front garden at Hayefield 2011
Location Tags: Hayefield; front garden; foundation planting; main path

Here’s where it’s helpful to have names for different parts of your yard. I use general locations, such as “front garden,” “side garden,” courtyard,” and so on, as well as more detailed indicators (foundation planting, side gate, or front steps, for example) and specific place names (Long Border, Easter Border, Knock Out Border, for example). The names you use for the various beds and parts of your yard don’t need to have meaning to anyone else: they just need to make sense to you, so you’ll remember what words to type in when you do an image search.

TDF Border at Hayefield 2007
Location Tags: Hayefield; TDF Border

Here again, it pays to be consistent, though that’s not always realistic. Over time, you’ll probably end up changing the names of some areas, as you change the plants or the layout of your beds. So, as with plant names, it’s a good idea to review your list of tags every year or two and add new place names to old ones. I used to call one area out back The Orchard, for instance, but when I redeveloped it last year, I changed the name the The Cottage Garden. By using both tags on any image I take out there, a search on either name brings up images over a span of years, which is helpful if I want to see how the area changed over time.

The Orchard at Hayefield 2010
Tags: Asian pear; pear; tree; fruit; midsummer; hay; mulch; wagon; weeds; fence; Hayefield; The Orchard; The Cottage Garden; 2010
Perennial Meadow in The Cottage Garden at Hayefield 2011
Tags: Asian pear; pear; Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Cassian’; Rudbeckia fulgida; Aster oblongifolius; lawn; tree; fruit; perennial; grass; perennial meadow; late summer; mulch; path; fence; shed; edging; ornament; Hayefield; The Orchard; The Cottage Garden; 2011

Getting creative with tags opens up a whole world of possibilities for later searches, and it can also give you lots of ideas for future blog posts. Here’s the cheat sheet I use when trying to come up with tags:

  • Plant name (botanical and/or common)
  • Location (geographic location and/or location within the garden)
  • Plant Features (leaves, flowers, seedpods, stems, etc., as well as usual leaf or flower forms)
  • Plant Type (annual, perennial, vine, bulb, grass, succulent, native, herb, etc.)
  • Season (spring, summer, fall, or winter, or more-detailed categories such as early spring, midspring, late spring)
  • Colors (basic color names – blue, red, yellow, and the like – plus categories such as pastels, hot colors, contrasts, harmonies, etc.)
  • Garden Use (specimen, border, island bed, container, hedge, raised bed, groundcover, slope, etc.)
  • Garden Style (cottage garden, formal, double border, drought-resistant, meadow, naturalistic, etc.)
  • Hardscaping (house, path, fence, shed, etc.)
  • Special Environmental Conditions (wind, backlighting, morning light, etc.)
  • View (macro/closeup, portrait [single plant], combination [several plants], etc.)
  • Non-Plant Materials (water, metal, stone, wood, glass, mulch, etc.)
  • Techniques (before/after cleanup, mulching, pruning, deadheading, etc.)
  • Miscellaneous Tags (event name, people, pets, wildlife, insects, etc.)

When you start looking at images this way, you’ll find that even a seemingly simple image can tell much more than you first thought.

Veronicastrum virginicum 'Erica' with Silene dioica and Tulipa 'Queen of Night' at Hayefield
Tags: Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Erica’; Silene dioica; Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’; midspring; perennial; bulb; flowers; foliage; combination; pink; purple; plum; Hayefield; side garden; 2011

Your chosen photo program may also allow you to add ratings (1-star to 5-star) to your images. I usually don’t bother with that, but if I find an image I especially like, I will add a five-star rating. (Think of how easy being able to sort like this would make those “my favorite pictures of the month/season/year” posts.)

Salvia officinalis 'Berggarten' combination at Hayefield
Tags: Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’; sage; Pelargonium ‘Lady Plymouth; scented geranium; Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’; Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence; lavender; Santolina chamaecyparissus; lavender cotton; Thymus vulgaris; thyme; herbs; perennial; tender perennial; foliage; combination; silver; gray; variegated; textures; edible; fragrance; late summer; Hayefield; Happy Garden; 2011; 5 stars

As you’re working through your photos, it’s a good opportunity to delete those that are crooked, blurry, too dark or bright, or otherwise unusable – unless, of course, you think you might want to use them as examples of your mistakes at some point. Don’t be too quick to delete pictures that you don’t immediately find appealing, though, because you just might find a use for them later.

Canna 'Intrigue' with Weigela florida 'Bramwell' (Fine Wine) and Pennisetum 'Tift 8' (Vertigo) at Hayefield
Tags: Canna ‘Intrigue’; Weigela florida ‘Bramwell’ (Fine Wine); Pennisetum ‘Tift 8’ (Vertigo); bulb; tender perennial; shrub; foliage; combination; plum; purple; midfall; Hayefield; front garden; 2011

On a simple image, it may take me 30 seconds to a minute to think of the tags I want, add them, and save them. (That’s assuming I know the plants, of course; if I decide to track down or confirm a plant ID, it can take quite a bit longer). On a wider garden shot, with lots of plants to identify, it may take me several minutes per image to think through everything.

Pennisetum 'Jade Princess' and 'Jester' with Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Taurus' and Sambucus nigra 'Aurea' at Hayefield
Tags: Ipomoea batatas (purple-leaved seedlings); Pennisetum ‘Jade Princess’; Sanguisorba tenuifolia; Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’; Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’; Acer triflorum; Aconitum carmichaelii; Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jester’; Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Taurus’; Zinnia ‘Profusion Orange’; Sanvitalia procumbens ‘Mandarin Orange’; annual; tender perennial; perennial; grass; shrub; tree; flowers; foliage; fall color; orange; pink; yellow; brown; combination; Hayefield; front garden; midfall; 2011

Having just labeled over 4600 images from 2011, I will warn you that extended periods of tagging can leave you temporarily cross-eyed and brain-dead. Spending an hour or an evening every so often is a pleasant winter project, though. It’s a wonderful opportunity to review the progress of your garden over the past year and track the performance of specific plants through the seasons, and to relearn the names of your plants, too. While you’re working, jot down ideas for blog posts as they come to you. Here are some ideas:

  • Changes in one part of your garden through the seasons, or from year to year
  • How a particular plant grows from seed to fruit, or how it looks from spring sprouting through winter dormancy
  • The progress of a garden project, such as the construction of an arbor or the renovation of a bed or border
  • A gallery of flowers, foliage, fruits, and garden features in particular colors
  • Your favorite combinations or container plantings
  • Your favorite paths, gates, walls, fences, arbors, ornaments, or other hardscaping features
  • The highlights of each month, season, or year

If the prospect of tagging your entire photo collection at once is too daunting, set a goal of tackling just the past year’s images, or resolve to give it a try each time you transfer images from your camera to your computer through this coming year. The first time you can find an image you want in seconds, instead of spending ages clicking through your entire collection, you’ll know it was worth your while.

Container planting with Ipomoea batatas (purple seedling), Iresine herbstii and 'Aureoreticulata', and Asarina scandens 'Joan Lorraine' at Hayefield 2011
Tags: Ipomoea batatas (purple-leaved seedling); Cistus ‘Mickie’; Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’; Iresine herbstii; Iresine herbstii ‘Aureoreticulata’; Asarina scandens ‘Joan Lorraine’; annual; tender perennial; vine; container; trellis; foliage; flowers; purple; red; pink; chartreuse; yellow; variegated; rust; combination; container; trellis; ornament; bunny; midfall; Hayefield; 2011; Thanks for Reading!

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John Drexel on January 2, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Nan,

    Happy New Year! So glad to receive your post. I missed hearing from you. This post was very informative and helpful. Your attention to detail is amazing. (I’m responding on my new iPad2, this is my first use, hope it makes sense.) Please continue the great work.

    I’m honored to be part of the first use of your new gadget, John. A couple of big deadlines kept me away from blogging for most of December, but I hope to get back to my regular every-two-weeks schedule from now on. Thanks for the Christmas card, and Happy New Year to you too!
    -Nan

  2. Oh, my goodness, I am going to have to try this out! I just spent hours looking through all of last year’s photos to find some of my favorites for the year. Quite time consuming to say the least. I just jumped into blogging and taking pictures and I am learning little by little as I go along. Your photos are always gorgeous!

    When you start spending more time going through your photos than you do actually writing your posts, it’s a clue that it’s time to get a bit more organized. Best of luck with your blogging in 2012, Toni.
    -Nan

  3. Posted by Heather on January 3, 2012 at 12:43 am

    What a helpful post. I’ve enjoyed your blog immensely over the past year, and I’ve been toying with the idea of starting my own garden blog for the Far North/Alaska (such geography-specific blogs are far and few between). Plus, I received a new laptop with particular attention to photo managing capability for the holiday. So your post was well received in latitude 61!

    That’s terrific, Heather! You’d be doing a great service to other gardeners in your region. Think about registering with Blotanical, too, so people searching there for bloggers in your area can find you. Go ahead and take the leap from reader to blogger; it takes just a few sentences and a few pictures.
    -Nan

  4. Posted by Kerry Sanders on January 3, 2012 at 2:16 am

    Oh Nan, so good to hear from you! Happy New Year to you.

    As usual, your post was inspiring and informative. I’m pretty organised with my photos but you’ve given me some ideas on how to improve things.

    And as always your garden photos are gorgeous! Even though I’ve seen some of them before, they always make me wish for things that I can’t get here.

    BTW my special US seeds are in trays and I’m [not very] patiently awaiting their sprouting…thanks again Nan!

    Sorry to continually be taunting you with plants you can’t get, Kerry; it’s not intentional. Tell those seeds to get up and get growing!
    -Nan

  5. Well, sometime when I have some time over (nowadays I´m a pensioner so I have a lot to do *hi, hi*) I will try to organize my pictures a bit better – but not excatly now!
    Happy New Year
    Susie at Stjarnarve in Sweden

    I’m sure you have plenty of plans for your time now, Susie. I realize photo tagging isn’t most people’s idea of a good time, but maybe you’ll enjoy it once you have a chance to try it. Wishing you a great growing season – and good luck with your cannas this year!
    -Nan

  6. Posted by Brenda Rose on January 3, 2012 at 6:13 am

    loved the photos. I’ll add this to my new year’s resolutions . . . again . . . .

    PS – I’ve been looking through your old posts and learning from the ones on old fields, brush mowers, etc.

    Oh, dear – I was trying to stay away from the suggestion of making photo organization a resolution for 2012. It can be kind of fun if you want to do it, but tedious if you feel like you should do it. And, there’s no need if your current system (or lack thereof) works for you.

    I’m glad you’re getting something out of those old posts. Feel free to get in touch with me by email if you have any questions about them.
    -Nan

  7. Posted by Susan Gilmour on January 3, 2012 at 6:53 am

    What a great blog, thanks for all the detailed info, I have never done this but will start.
    Can you tell me how long it takes that impomea(blackie) to bloom, I have never had them bloom. Of course living up north in Nova Scotia, I may not have a long enough growing season and I only buy the ones from the garden centers, may not be the same plant. Have never seen the seed for sale. I have tried to grow them from a saved tuber but it comes back green, oh well it was fun to try. Thanks again Nancy. Happy New Year!!

    I don’t think ‘Blackie’ ever bloomed for me, or any other sweet potato vine until ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’. After that, I started finding self-sown seedlings every summer, to the point where I stopped buying started plants of ‘SCP’. Two years ago, I bought an unlabeled bronzy leaved one, and it flowered and set seed too. Those seeds produced, among other seedlings, that really nice deep purple one in the last photo. (There’s a bit of ‘Blackie’ in that container too, but it wasn’t nearly as dense or dark.) This seedling flowered freely, as you can see, but sadly, it set no seed. I guess I’ll need to buy some ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ plants next year to get sweet potato seeds again.
    -Nan

  8. Great post! I love to hear how others organize their images!

    A suggestion: Picasa is a free download and I like the way it works. You can do all the tagging etc. like you mention, but you can also organize albums, move images between actual folders, rate them, save them (free) in cloud albums, prepare them for the web and a lot more. I move all my actual files into folders – just a holdover from olden days when I was a computer programmer – and rename them by genus or location or whatever. Then I can also retrieve them easily in Photoshop or other programs without going to the tags. I do mostly nature photography so I have limited categories.

    Just as an example, I have a folder called Ferns, folders within it for each species that I have photographed, and in those folders the actual images have names that start with the species name, then the date, and maybe the location:
    /ferns/walking fern/asplenium.rhizophyllum.aug1311.eaglesnest…

    Picasa allows group renames so it is easy to do. If you move any files without using Picasa, Picasa re-catalogues the next time you bring it up. Same when you download a batch of new pics. First thing Picasa does when it starts is add them to your library.

    In Picasa, I can retrieve all the images with the tag ‘Eagles Nest’, then either move copies to a working folder, or sort through and choose only some to set aside for working on, or set up new temporary albums.

    Try it, you might like it!

    Another suggestion: I review all my pics, and like you said, delete any that are blurry, out-of-focus, bad somehow. Then, and this is the useful part, I look at near-duplicates and ask myself, ‘does this add anything to the info for this view’. I mean, does this image have anything the previous one didn’t. Then I ruthlessly delete all dups. Why have 7 copies of a close-up of the stipe of a walking fern? Keep the best one, ditch the rest. As images of some species accumulate, I sometimes go through and delete the poorer ones, too.

    18,000+ images and counting, so I know whereof I speak…….

    Thanks so much for the excellent suggestions, Elisabeth. I did download Picasa about a year ago, and it looked interesting, but I was too used to my old ways to make the switch. I too use folders to some extent, especially if I’m gathering photos for a client. And that’s a really good point about deleting duplicate images. I should do that more, but instead, I usually end up just labeling them in groups (highlighting several images at one time and applying one or more labels to the whole group). But then, when they all come up in a search, I wonder why I didn’t get rid of some of them.
    -Nan

  9. I just bought Adobe Lightroom 3 so I can keep better track of my photos. Now all I have to do is find the time to tag them all. And not get distracted by something shiny while I am doing it. I think I have over 25,000 photos so it may take a while. But I’m sure there are people with many more than that.

    Good for you! I’d be interested in hearing what you think of the program once you’ve had a chance to work with it a bit.
    -Nan

  10. Posted by Donna B. on January 4, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    I’m really happy to know that I am not the only organization-oriented person out there when it comes to my photos! I don’t go as far as tagging each photo, although that is an excellent idea, but each day I take photos of my yard/garden/cooking they go into their own monthly folder. I’ve had to wrap up the 2011 folder, and a new 2012 is now made!
    I’ll have to see if I can rate the files… that’s probably one of the more brilliant things I’ve seen so far! Thanks Nan!

    That sounds like a good system, Donna. Filing the photos regularly is really the smart way to go, so they don’t build up too much and get overwhelming. If you’re using Windows and have trouble finding a way to add ratings to your photos, I’d be glad to try to help.
    -Nan

  11. Posted by Melanie Neff on January 4, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Thanks for the post! I am a newcomer to your blog and have been enjoying reading back through older posts and your photos are fantastic! I live south central PA and recently bought a new house with practically no landscaping. Your photos are so inspiring to me on a cold winter day while I dream about spring and compile my list of must-have plants.

    Thanks so much, Melanie – great to have you as a reader! Best of luck with your new garden in the coming years. You have a lot of fun ahead of you.
    -Nan

  12. Oh Nan, it’s like you read my mind with this post! The last few years I’ve committed myself to this task during the winter months. It can be tedious at times, but I try to just do a chunk at a time, by spring I’m pretty much caught up :-) During the gardening seasons, I just keep a folder in the program I use for each month…then, during winter, I go through and sort and tag them in greater detail. I hadn’t thought of some of those other categories though (sun/shade/location). I’m implementing those right away…they will save me SO MUCH TIME when doing blog posts. One thing is for certain, it’s much more fun looking at images of the garden as it was earlier in the year compared to what it looks like at the moment ;-) Happy New Year…can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in 2012!

    You’re right, Scott – the one advantage of waiting until winter is that you get the fun of looking at lots of color on your computer screen, even if it’s lacking outdoors. I especially enjoyed reliving last spring’s bulbs; I’d forgotten about many of them. And now, I’m really looking forward to seeing them again this spring.
    -Nan

  13. Nancy, I just want to thank you again for doing this post and teaching me how to tag photos. I feel so silly that I had no idea how to do this. I’ve been giving it a try, and lo and behold, it is working!!! Woo hoo!! This is going to save me so much time!!!! My old photos are saved by month, which I guess has been better than nothing, but this will save me loads of time when I am trying to find all of my foliage pictures, for example, or whatever. I am not sure I will quickly get all of my old photos tagged, but it is a new year, and I can start tagging all of the new photos, and then over time go back and work on the old ones. I really appreciate your taking the time to do this detailed post to help the clueless among us :-)

    You made my day, Toni. Sharing ideas is one of the greatest things about blogging, I think. Tagging has made such a difference for me that I’d hoped at least one other person would find it useful too. Good luck working through your old images. Just an hour or two every now and then can be a help.
    -Nan

  14. Nan, this is a subject I have been thinking about a lot lately. I use Picasa also like Elisabeth and would love to contact her but for some reason I can’t comment on her blog. Could you send me her email address or email her and ask her to email me? In Picasa, I caption each photo and then move it to a folder like Ferns A to Z or Species Hellebores. I am confused as to whether a caption is the same as a tag and whether I can search captions. Also putting a caption on in Picasa is not labeling the photo in My Pictures so it’s possible you could some day lose the information. Is there some way to just label once and have it apply everywhere? Does your system do that? Happy New Year. Carolyn

    Hi Carolyn. I’ve given Elisabeth your address to get in touch. I’ve never used captions, only tags, so I can’t give you much more info; sorry. I do know that when I tag my images using Windows Photo Gallery or the My Pictures window, the tags come along when I open those images in Photoshop Elements; I don’t recall having checked in other programs.
    -Nan

  15. Hello from Japan… think this is my second comment in your blog… your posts are really informative and entertaining… and your pictures are very pleasing captions… after reading this post, I think I should start trying to do the tagging… and as you said, it is daunting as I am pretty hopeless at organizing things… happy 2012 to you…

    Thank you for visiting again, Lrong. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Good luck giving tagging a try!
    -Nan

  16. I love looking at your photos and I “pinned” one on pintrest the other day without thinking. I just noticed your request that your pictures not be used on other sites. Pintrest links it to your blog. I removed it because of your request and apologize but was wondering if it bothers you if your images are “pinned” on pintrest?

    You garden is an inspiration. Thanks.

    Hi Kim – absolutely, Pinterest is fine with me; no apologies necessary. Thanks for asking!
    -Nan

  17. Thank you for this wonderful info-just what I was looking for. You’re amazing! I can get lost in your garden pictures. They are just beautiful.

    Super! It’s always good to be both informative *and* enjoyable. Glad you liked the post, Sandi.
    -Nan

  18. Just the push I needed. The only organization I’ve used so far is month of the year. Finding an image in seconds…oh, my!

    It really is a great thing, Denise, to be able to find images just that quickly. Get busy tagging!
    -Nan

  19. Hello, Nan. Happy 2012!

    Thank you very much for providing these very helpful tips! And, I do know what you mean about Windows 7. How wonderful of you to share your techy knowledge.

    Thanks for reading, Debra. I’m actually not all that techy: I’m all about finding the simplest way to do what I need to do. I’ve picked up a few great ideas from the comments here, though.
    -Nan

  20. Nan, this is a wonderful post. I use Aperture since I got my iMac, but I’m not in love with it. I wish I were better about being consistent. I should also take more photos than I do especially in winter. Your info is spot on my friend.~~Dee

    Thanks, Dee. I’m not familiar with Aperture. I guess the best program for tagging is whichever one we actually use!
    -Nan

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