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Your key to the secret language of gardening.

By Lauren David
March 24, 2021
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If you're new to getting your hands dirty and digging in the soil, you've likely come across plenty of gardening terminology. At first, it can be overwhelming to understand what all these new words mean and figure out how they relate to what you want to grow. Just like any hobby or profession, gardening has its own set of jargon but don't worry about understanding everything all at once. With any new skill, there's usually a learning curve.

Even some gardeners who have been at it for years may not remember all of these terms, or might need to occasionally reference what they mean. So, if you're eager to get planting, let this gardening reference help guide you as you dig in.

Note: This glossary is intended as an overview. To take a deeper dive into a term such as crop rotation, you'll find plenty of resources online and in gardening publications that will explain in more detail. Or ask at your local nursery; gardeners love to help.

Gardener's Glossary

Amendment: Any material used to add nutrients and improve the physical condition of soil (e.g. soil structure, water retention or drainage, etc.) Compost and humus are examples of organic soil amendments.

Annual: A plant that completes its entire life cycle over one growing season. This means it grows, flowers, produces seeds, and dies, all within the year.

Average frost date: Based on your region, the average day when the first frost usually happens in the fall or when the last frost typically occurs in the spring. This is important to know when planting seeds.

Beneficial insect: These are insects that are helpful in the garden. They may eat other pests, pollinate plants, or help the garden in some way. Bees and ladybugs are examples of beneficial insects.

Biennial: Plants that have a life cycle over two growing seasons. The second year is when the plant flowers, fruits, and produces seeds before dying off.

Bolt: When a plant goes to seed sooner than its normal growing cycle. This can happen due to a sudden change in temperature.

Cold frame: A structure that goes over a planting bed to keep in the heat of the sun, especially in spring or fall. It can act or look like a small greenhouse.

Companion planting: Plants that thrive and do better when grown near other plants. Some companion plantings help repel pests (marigolds and tomatoes), some attract pollinators to the garden, some provide shade (corn and lettuce), some provide support for climbing vines (corn and squash), and some improve the quality of the soil for one another. There are many online guides to companion planting; for best results, find a reliable guide for your particular growing zone.

Compost: Organic matter — such as leaves and grass clippings — that has decomposed and often looks like soil. It is used to add nutrients to the soil and is a way to create a sustainable closed-loop system that recycles beneficial material back into the soil it grew in.

Cover crop: Plants or vegetation grown in between growing seasons to add nutrients back into the soil as well as reducing weed growth. Alfalfa and clover are examples of cover crops.

Crop rotation: Plants need and take different nutrients from the soil. Changing what you plant in a particular location each season is one way to help balance out the soil and ensure that the nutrients aren't completely depleted, or that soil-borne diseases aren't passed on.

Determinate plants: Plants that produce all their fruit at or around the same time. The harvest window will be shorter.

Fertilizer: Any material used to provide nutrients for plants. Fertilizers can be chemical-based or natural. Packaged fertilizers display their NPK numbers, which show the ratio of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and postassium (K). For best results, use the fertilizer that's recommended for your plant and soil conditions.

Germination: When a seed sprouts and begins to grow.

lettuces seedlings and basket of gardening supplies
Credit: Meredith

Hardening off: The process of gradually exposing young plants to outside temperatures so when they are planted in the ground they assimilate and adapt a lot easier.

Heirloom: Plant varieties that maintain the genetics of the parent plant with only slight variations over time and are preserved for the genetic heritage. Heirloom plants are often prized for their diversity, flavors, and lineage.

Humus: Rich organic material, such as compost, created by the process of decomposition. Humus is used to add nutrients and improve soil condition.

Hybrid: A plant that has been created by intentionally cross-pollinating two similar varieties or species.

Indeterminate plants: Plants that produce fruit continually throughout the gardening season. The harvesting period will be longer. Non-hybrid plants and heirlooms are usually indeterminate.

Mulch: Organic material that provides a protective covering over the soil. This helps retain and maintain moisture in the soil and help minimize weed growth. Types of mulch vary and can include compost, leaves, straw, sawdust, ground bark, or wood chips.

Open-pollination: Plants that are pollinated by insects or wind, or can self-pollinate or cross pollinate with plants that are a similar species. Heirloom plants are usually open-pollinated.

Perennial: Plants that typically live for more than three years and will grow back year after year.

pH: Refers to how acidic or alkaline the soil is. Typically, plants grow well in a soil that has a pH of 6.5-7. A soil test can determine the pH level of your soil as well as the presence or absence of other nutrient content.

Pollinators: Pollinators help plants grow and produce fruit by transferring pollen from one flower to another. There are many types of pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, bats, moths, and more, who go from flower to flower drinking the nectar of the flower and picking up the pollen in the process.

Seedlings: Young plants that have sprouted and are big enough to be moved or transplanted into larger containers or planted directly into the soil. Sometimes referred to as starter plants or simply "starts."

Self-pollinating: Plants that are capable of pollinating themselves and therefore produce their own fruit without the need of pollinators. Tomatoes are examples of self-pollinators.

Sow: Planting a seed or seeds in the ground.

Starter plants/starts: Plants that are ready to be transplanted from small, individual containers to larger containers or into a garden bed.

Transplant/transplanting: When a plant has outgrown its current pot and needs to be moved to a bigger container or planted directly into the soil.

USDA hardiness zones: A system created by the United States Department of Agriculture that classifies plants based on the coldest temperatures it can handle or tolerate in the winter. This guide is helpful when choosing plants to know which ones will do well in your region and which ones might not stand much of a chance.