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The Ultimate List of Gardening Terms

Sometimes “garden speak” can seem like a foreign language, especially if you are new or inexperienced. Below we’ve compiled a list of as many common gardening terms we can think of, so you can read up and start speaking the lingo.

If you think we’re missing something, or there’s a specific term you think should be added to the list, give us a shout in the comments! We’ll be happily adding more terms as we come across them in our gardening adventures.

We’ve broken up the list into sections based on what major garden activity or element each term is associated with most:

  1. Growing Mediums – terms related to soil and its components.
  2. Seasons
  3. Starting Seeds + Seedlings
  4. Plant Anatomy + Growth
  5. Fertilizer + Nutrients
  6. Gardening Methods

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1. Growing Mediums

Mulch:

Can be any material that is spread over the soil surface around plants in the garden. Common types include: compost, manure, wood chips, grass clippings, straw, gravel and dead leaves. The main purpose of mulch is to help the soil retain moisture so fewer waterings are required, and to help prevent weeds from growing and competing with your plants. Mulches made of organic material also contribute to the improvement of the soil as they are broken down.

Organic Matter:

Substances that come from living things, normally from plants or animals. When added to your soil, organic matter helps to improve soil structure and supplies nutrients to your plants. Examples: compost, wood chips, straw, and manure.

Perlite:

A light granular mineral, created by expanding minerals under very high heat. Commonly seen in potting mixes, perlite is the little white specks you see that often rise to the top. Since it is so light, perlite’s main purpose is to aid in good drainage of the soil or potting mix.

Vermicomposting:

The practice of using earthworms to break down and convert food scraps and other organic materials into worm castings, which are used as a fertilizer in the garden.

Vermiculite:

Another lightweight mineral with similar a similar use to perlite, but ranging in colour from brown to bronze to yellow instead of white. Vermiculite is a sterile soil amendment created by heating mica at very high temperatures until it expands. This expanded form contains lots of air, and is able to retain moisture very well. For this reason, it is most often added to container potting mixes to help aerate the soil and aid in moisture retention.

Worm Casting:

The digested organic waste of red worms. Gardeners consider them the most nutrient dense organic compost available.

 

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2. Seasons

First / Last Frost Date:

The average expected last frost date in the spring, and first frost date in the autumn, for your area. Frost dates are important to know when considering what you can grow in your area, and deciding when to plant. Cold-hardy plants aside, most other plants will need to be planted some time between these two dates in order to survive and produce.

Growing Season:

The number of days between the average last frost date in spring and the average first frost date in autumn. Since most vegetables will be killed off by frost, it is essential to grow them during your growing season if planting them outdoors. Vegetables and some other plants require a minimum number of days to reach maturity, so make sure your growing season is long enough and that you plant them early enough in the season in order to get a full harvest!

Hardiness:

The ability of a plant to withstand cold temperatures or frost, without the help of protection such as a greenhouse, hoop-house, or cloche. Most plants will be labelled with the range of zones that they’re hardy in—meaning they can survive the winter temperatures of zones in that range. You can sometimes still grow plants that are not hardy in your zone if you provide them with protection or bring them indoors during the coldest months.

 

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3. Starting Seeds + Seedlings

Bareroot: 

Plants that you buy in a dormant state and removed from the soil. They often consist of just the root and crow, but sometime some green growth may have started. You often see strawberries and roses sold like this. Bare root plants must be soaked for several hours before planting to bring them out of their dormant state.

Cuttings:

A method of plant propagation where a leaf, stem or bud is cut from a parent plant in order to make a new plant. The cutting is then “planted” into a growing medium such as potting mix, in order to form roots and establish itself as a new plant.

Damping Off:

A disease that affects young seedlings in which a fungus attacks the plant at soil level. The fungus causes decay of young seedling’s stem, causing them to topple over and die. The chances of this happening can be reduced by using sterile starting mix and avoiding overwatering of young seedlings.

Direct Seed:

To sow seeds directly into the soil of your garden instead of starting seeds indoors and later transplanting them to their permanent homes.

Germinate:

The technical term for a seed sprouting. Germination occurs whenever a seed breaks out of dormancy and starts growing roots and shoots.

Hardening Off:

The process of acclimatizing plants grown indoors to the harsher conditions outdoors. Plants grown indoors are not used to harsh sunlight, cooler temperatures, wind, and other environmental factors. Hardening off is achieved by leaving plants outside during the day for a short period of time and bringing them in at night, increasing the time outdoors each consecutive day for approximately 7 days. After this period, plants can be safely left outdoors overnight and transplanted into the garden.

Leggy / Legginess:

Leggy plants are those that have grown an excessively long and straggly stem, as a result of insufficient sunlight. These plants have grown tall and spindly as they desperately stretch toward their light source, and are weaker than plants grown with adequate lighting.

Prick Out:  

To carefully remove and separate seedlings grown together in a starter pot. Pricked out seedlings are then transferred to their own individual pots to give them more space to grow.

Seed Leaves vs True Leaves:

Seed leaves or the cotyledon are the first set of leaves that a seedling puts out. True leaves are any leaves the plant produces after the first set. They are called “true” leaves because the first leaves do not have the characteristic leaf shape of the plant, but true leaves do. Seed leaves are simpler, and allow the plant to start photosynthesizing to make energy to start producing its normal true leaves.

 

What’s the difference between heirloom, hybrid, and open-pollinated seeds? 

 

Open-Pollinated:

Seeds that are produced by natural methods of pollination, such as by insect, bird, wind, or hand pollination. Because this process happens in an open environment, there is no control over flow of pollen between individual plants, resulting in more genetic diversity with a greater amount of variation within the plant population. Seeds produced will maintain the characteristics of the variety as long as pollen is not shared between different varieties of the plant species.

Heirloom:

A variety of plant that has been passed down within a family or community over a long period of time. Heirloom varieties are all open-pollinated, however not all open-pollinated variety are heirlooms. Seeds produced will maintain their unique characteristics as long as pollen is not shared between different varieties of the plant species.

Hybrid:

These seeds are the offspring of two plants of different species or varieties, created through cross-pollination in a controlled environment. All of the hybrid seeds produced in this way will produce similar plants with similar characteristics. However, seeds from the next generation will not have  the same traits as the parent. This is because these seeds are pollinated by another plant, which alters the genetic makeup of the offspring. Hybrids are created to add improved characteristics to the plant, such as higher yields, greater uniformity, and disease resistance.

 

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4. Plant Anatomy + Growth

What are the differences between annuals, biennials, and perennials? 

Annuals:

Plants that complete their life cycle within one growing season. A plant’s complete life cycle consists of going from seed to flower to seed production and finally death. Examples: basil, beans, peas and lettuce.

Biennials:

Plants that have a two-year life cycle. In the first year the plant grows from seed and focuses on producing roots and leafy growth. The second year, the plant puts most of its energy into producing flowers in order to produce seeds and reproduce. Examples: parsley, sweet William.

Perennials: 

Plants that keep growing for many years. Perennials are divided into two types, woody and herbaceous. Woody perennials like trees and shrubs remain year after year, while herbaceous perennials die back to ground level in the winter but come back with new growth in the spring. Examples: Woody – tree peony. Herbaceous – herbaceous peony, poppies, delphiniums.

Bolting:

A term used to describe when a plant prematurely produces a flowering stem in an attempt to produce seeds and reproduce. The plant diverts most of its energy from producing edible parts such as the roots and leaves into producing flowers. This is a problem if it happens before the crop is harvested, as it often results in a poor quality or bitter tasting product. Bolting can be caused by many factors such as changes in day length, exposure of cool weather crops to high temperatures, and stressor such as insufficient water or minerals. Crops inclined to bolt include lettuce, brassicas, and spinach amongst others.

Crown:

The part of a plant at or just below the soil surface where shoots and roots emerge from.

 

What are determinate and indeterminate tomatoes? 

 

Determinate:

Determinate variety tomatoes or “bush” tomatoes grow to a certain compact height and then stop. Tomatoes on a determinate plant will set fruit that normally all ripen at approximately the same time, over a span of a couple weeks. This variety normally still requires support (unless it is a dwarf variety), but tomato cages or small stakes should suffice as the plants do not get too large. Determinate tomatoes are great for container growing if you have a small space.

Indeterminate:

Indeterminate tomatoes or “vine” type tomatoes will keep growing and producing fruit until the plant is killed by frost. They can grow very large, 6 ft on average, but some varieties reach up to 12 ft in height. Because of this, these tomato plants require substantial staking in order to support their weight. Indeterminates will continue to bloom and produce fruit throughout the growing season.

Node: 

The point on the stem of a plant where branches, leaves or flowers originate.

Pinching Back: 

The process of using your fingers to pinch and break off the end portion of a branch or stem. This is done in order to promote side growth, resulting in a bushier, fuller plant.

Root Bound:

The condition when a plant has outgrown its container. The roots have no more space to grow, and may coil at the bottom of the pot and begin to entangle and cut off the growth of the other roots. This results in stunted growth. When repotting a root bound plant into a larger container, tease out the roots a bit to loosen them and to encourage them to grow outward into the new soil.

Runners:

A method of reproduction, most often experience with strawberries, where the parent plant sends out above ground shoots. These shoots, called runners, extend away from the parent plant and will eventually root to form offspring plantlets. Some plants may produce underground runners in a similar fashion.

Suckers:

Most often referred to in tomato plants, a sucker is a growth originating from the space between the main stem of a plant and one of its branches. The sucker will grow to produce a new fruiting branch. Most suckers should be removed from indeterminate tomatoes early on, so the plant focuses its energy on growing larger instead of producing fruit right away, resulting in higher yields.

Thin Out:

To remove a number flowers, seedlings or branches in order to improve the growth of those remaining.

Transplanting:

The transfer of a plant from one container or growing medium to another. Often used to refer to moving indoor started seedlings from their containers to the garden bed outdoors.

 

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5. Fertilizer + Nutrients

N-P-K:

An abbreviation for the three main nutrients or “macronutrients” that are necessary for plants to survive and grow. These are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). These are often found as the three numbers on fertilizer labels, and represent the percentage per volume of each nutrient. For example a 10-5-2 fertilizer contains 10% nitrogen, 5% phosphorus, and 2% potassium.

Micro-Nutrients:

Other mineral elements that are needed by plants but only in very small amounts. They are boron (B), zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn), iron (Fe), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), and chlorine (Cl).

 

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6. Gardening Methods

 

Crop Rotation:

The good practice of planting a different crop in a site (or container) than what was planted the year before. Because plants have different nutrient requirements and cause different changes to the soil, this helps to keep the soil nutrient content balanced. It also aids in preventing the spread of disease.

Dead Heading:

The process of removing spent flowers from a plant. This is done for aesthetic purposes in addition to encouraging the plant to produce more flowers.

Foliar Fertilizing:

A method of feeding plants by applying liquid fertilizer directly to the leaves of a plant.

Hydroponics: 

The science of growing plants in mineral solutions or liquid instead of using soil.

Organic:

Scientifically speaking, organic refers to something made up of carbon-based chemical compounds. It can also refer more specifically to something derived from living organisms.

Organic Gardening:

A method of gardening based on building a healthy, living soil that will support and feed the plants grown on it. This is achieved through supplementing with naturally occurring organic matter such as compost and other sources of nutrients such as manure or kelp fertilizers. The general idea is that healthy plants are more pest and disease resistant, so organic farming should theoretically result in less use of pesticides. However, this is not always the case and pesticides are often needed. When this happens, cultural and mechanical methods are used first, followed by the use of naturally derived pesticides when required.

Xeriscaping:

The process of creating a low maintenance landscape in order to reduce water usage. This is normally done with native plants instead of large expanses of lawn or grass.

 

Have something you think should be added to the list? Let us know in the comments below!

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