If you’re new to gardening, it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of terminology that comes with the hobby. From deadheading to hardening off, the gardening world has its own language that can be confusing to beginners. However, understanding these terms is essential to becoming a successful gardener.
Let’s break down some of the most common gardening terms for beginners. Whether you’re starting a vegetable garden or planting some flowers, this guide will help you understand the language of gardening and make your journey a little bit easier. So, let’s get started and explore some of the essential gardening terms that every beginner should know.
BASIC GARDENING TERMINOLOGY
As a beginner in gardening, it’s important to understand some basic terminology to help you navigate the world of plants. Here are some common terms you’ll come across:
Common names are the names that plants are commonly known by. For example, “daisy” is the common name for the plant with the botanical name Bellis perennis. Common names can vary depending on the region and language, so it’s important to be familiar with the botanical names, as well.
Botanical names are the set of scientific names (the genus name and then the species name) given to each plant. Referring back to the common daisy, “Bellis” is the genus name and “perennis” is the species name. Botanical names are standardized and used worldwide, making them a more reliable way to identify plants.
Scientific names are similar to botanical names, but they include additional information such as the author who named the plant and the date it was named. For example, the full scientific name for the daisy plant is Bellis perennis L., where “L.” stands for the botanist Carl Linnaeus, who named the plant in 1753. Scientific names are not commonly used in everyday gardening, but they can be useful for research and academic purposes.
Here’s a quick overview of other basic gardening terms you may come across:
- Annual: A plant that completes its life cycle in one growing season
- Biennial: A plant that completes its life cycle in two growing seasons
- Perennial: A plant that lives for more than two growing seasons
- Deadheading: Removing spent flowers to encourage more blooms
- Direct sowing: Planting seeds directly in the ground rather than starting them indoors
- Full sun: At least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day
- Part sun: 3-6 hourse of direct sunlight per day
- Germination: The process of a seed sprouting and beginning to grow
- Hardening off: Gradually acclimating seedlings to outdoor conditions before planting them in the ground
- Mulch: Material such as leaves or straw used to cover the soil around plants to retain moisture and suppress weeds
- Pruning: Removing parts of a plant to encourage healthy growth or change the overall shape
- Transplanting: Moving a plant from one location to another
With a basic understanding of these terms, you’ll be better equipped to start your gardening journey. Now, let’s look more in depth at some other terms organized into categories by how you might see them used.
Soil is the literal foundation of any garden, and it’s important to know its characteristics to ensure your plants grow healthy and strong. Here are some key soil terminologies that every beginner gardener should know.
Soil quality refers to the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of soil. It determines the suitability of soil for plant growth. Good soil quality is essential for healthy plants.
Soil fertility is the ability of soil to provide essential nutrients to plants so that they can grow—specifically key nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Soil fertility can be improved by adding organic matter, such as compost or manure.
A soil test is a way to determine the nutrient content and pH level of soil. It’s recommended to test your soil every few years to ensure it has the right balance of nutrients for your plants.
Soil amendments are materials added to soil to improve its physical and chemical properties. Examples of soil amendments include compost, peat moss, and vermiculite.
Soil structure refers to the arrangement of soil particles. Good soil structure allows air, water, and nutrients to move freely through the soil. Soil structure can be improved by adding organic matter and avoiding compaction.
Water retention is the ability of soil to hold water. Plants need water to grow, and good water retention is essential for healthy plant growth.
Good drainage is the ability of soil to allow excess water to drain away. Poor drainage can lead to waterlogged soil, which can damage plant roots.
Acidic soil has a pH level below 7. Most plants prefer slightly acidic soil with a pH level between 6 and 7. Soil pH can be adjusted to be more acidic by adding peat moss or acidifier fertilizer.
Alkaline soil has a pH level above 7. Some plants, such as cacti and succulents, prefer alkaline soil. The addition of garden lime can make soil more alkaline.
Clay soil is heavy and drains slowly. It can be improved by adding organic matter and course sand to improve soil structure and increase proper water drainage.
Sandy soils are light and drain quickly. Most plants want some sand in their soil to improve drainage, but they’ll need other components in there too to provide more support for their roots. Sandy soils can be improved by adding organic material to improve water retention and soil structure.
The best soil blend for herbs, flowers, and most of the fruits and veggies you might want to grow at home will be a mix of topsoil, construction sand, and compost.
You gotta know what you’re growing. Otherwise, you’ll have no idea how long a plant is supposed to last in your space and what you should do to care for it. These are just some of the basic terms to help you get started:
Perennial plants are plants that live for more than two years. They come back year after year and are a great investment for your garden. Some examples of perennial plants include roses, Texas sage, and oregano.
Annual plants are plants that complete their life cycle in one growing season. They need to be replanted each year. Some examples of annual plants include marigolds, petunias, and lettuce.
Biennial plants are plants that complete their lifecycle in two years. The first year the plant will focus on growing roots, leaves and stems and the second year it will bear it’s fruit, flowers and seeds for harvesting. Some examples of biennial plants include parsley, carrots, leeks, and onions.
Tender perennials are plants that are technically perennials, but they are not hardy enough to survive the winter in colder climates. They need to be protected or brought indoors during the winter months. Some examples of tender perennials include geraniums, basil, and even vining tomatoes. Because frost comes along each year and kills our basil and tomato plants, we treat them like annuals and replant each year.
Native plants are plants that are indigenous to a particular region. They are well adapted to the local climate and soil conditions, which means they’re super easy to care for. Some examples of native plants include coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and milkweed.
The Right Plant
You’ll see this term a lot as you learn more about gardening, as in “it’s important to choose the right plant for your garden.” The right plant is basically one matched to your sunlight levels, soil type, climate, and evening gardening experience. There are different types of the same plant—there is, for example, Roman chamomile versus German chamomile—and each will have unique characteristics. That means it’s a good idea to do a little research on the specific type of plant you’re interested in to ensure that it’s a good fit for you and your garden.
If you’re interested in propagating your plants, then this term will come up. This is the original plant that you’ll be taking cuttings from to create new plants.
Like children, young plants require special care and attention to ensure that they grow up healthy and strong. Be sure to follow the planting instructions carefully and provide them with the right amount of water and nutrients until they become “established” (basically more settled in your garden and capable of caring for themselves a bit more).
Moving is even more stressful for plants than for us. When you first bring a new plant home from the nursery, it’s important to give it time to acclimate to its new environment. You’ll want to water it more frequently than its established counterpart until it feels more at home.
Heirloom plants are plants that have been passed down from generation to generation and are often prized for their unique characteristics. Growing your own heirlooms or shopping at a farmers’ market is often the only way to experience these different flavors, colors, or textures since the grocery store typically sells only commercial varieties. Look for seed packets for heirloom tomatoes, peppers, beans, and many more.
Hybrid plants are plants that have been crossbred to create a new variety. They often have unique characteristics that make them desirable for gardeners, like resistance to a common pest or disease or the ability to grow in hotter weather. You can find hybrids for everything from roses to tomatoes.
Indeterminate plants are those that continue to grow and produce fruit throughout the growing season. Vining tomatoes are one example. You’ll get a small but steady fruit harvest until frost or heat kills your plant.
In contrast to indeterminate plants, determinate types will produce all their fruit at once and then be done. This is the case for bush tomatoes and bush beans. Determinate plants have a more compact growth habit than their indeterminate friends, making them more ideal for small garden spaces and container gardens.
Cole crops are super-nutritious vegetables in the brassica family, including broccoli, cauliflower, and kale. These plants prefer cool weather and can be difficult to grow in hot climates.
TERMS FOR PLANT GROWTH AND CARE
You’re not the only one who’s wondered if there’s really a difference between seed starting mix, potting soil, and topsoil. Let’s look at some terms you might come across when trying to be a good plant parent.
The growing medium is the material in which plants grow. It can be soil, compost, peat moss, vermiculite, or a combination of all these things. Sometimes you might need to change up the growing medium based on the life stages of the plants you’re growing. Seedlings, for instance, love growing in super fluffy seed starting mix, which often has zero extra nutrients to feed them (don’t worry—they don’t really need it yet). As those plants mature, they’ll need something a little more substantial to support their roots and supply key nutrients.
You’ll also use different growing mediums based on where your plants will grow. Potting soil, for instance, shouldn’t be used to fill a raised bed; it’s ideal for use only in smaller containers and is often specific to certain types of plants (i.e., citrus trees, tropical houseplants, etc.).
Plants go through several stages of growth, from seed to seedling, young plant to mature plant, before forming seeds and finishing their life cycle. Understanding the growth cycle of your plants can help you determine when to water, fertilize, and prune them.
Deadheading is the process of removing spent flowers from a plant. This encourages the plant to produce more flowers and can help prolong the blooming period.
Cross pollination occurs when pollen from one plant is transferred to another, resulting in a hybrid plant. This can be intentional or accidental. If you’re growing a plant that needs to be pollinated, do a little research to see if it needs a friend nearby to ensure better pollination (like blueberries) or if it should be kept far away from different types to avoid cross pollination (as is the case with corn).
Companion planting involves strategically planting different types of plants together to benefit each other. For example, planting marigolds with tomatoes can help deter pests on the tomato plants.
Crop rotation involves planting different crops in the same area each year to prevent soil-borne diseases and pests.
Beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and praying mantises, can help control pests in your garden. Don’t forget the unsung heroes of the garden: our friendly neighborhood pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Some plants are resistant to certain diseases, while others are more susceptible. Choosing disease-resistant varieties can help prevent issues in your garden.
Fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew and black spot, can be caused by damp conditions and poor air circulation. Pruning and practicing good watering habits (like avoiding getting water droplets on the leaves of plants) can help prevent fungal disease.
Nutrient deficiencies can occur when plants don’t receive enough of certain nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Changes in the leaf color are often a sign a plant needs more nutrients.
Trace elements are essential nutrients that plants need in small amounts, such as iron, zinc, and copper.
Composting food waste can be a great way to create nutrient-rich soil for your garden. Just be sure to avoid composting meat, dairy, and other animal products. Check out our guide to composting to learn more about how you can turn garbage into gold for your garden.
As with many hobbies, there are lots of different techniques to use in the garden (and often differing opinions on which methods are best). Here are some common techniques you should know:
I prefer to use organic gardening techniques, which means avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, I use natural methods to fertilize my soil and control pests. This includes using compost, manure, and other organic matter to enrich the soil and attract beneficial insects to control pests.
Row covers are lightweight fabrics that are placed over plants to protect them from pests and frost. They allow sunlight and water to pass through, while keeping pests out. I use row covers to protect my plants from pests like aphids and cabbage worms.
A cold frame is a simple structure that is used to extend the growing season by providing a warm, protected environment for plants. It’s essentially a box or a thick row cover with a transparent material that can be opened or closed to regulate temperature and humidity. I use a cold frame to start seedlings early in the season and to grow cold-tolerant crops like spinach and kale.
Drip irrigation is a watering technique that delivers water directly to the roots of plants through a network of tubes and emitters. It’s more efficient than traditional watering methods because it minimizes water loss through evaporation and runoff. I use drip irrigation to conserve water and ensure my plants get the right amount of moisture.
Ground level gardening is a technique where you plant directly in the ground, rather than in raised beds or containers. This can be a more affordable and space-efficient option for gardening. I use ground level gardening for crops like potatoes and carrots that need deep soil to grow.
Plastic sheeting is a technique where you cover the soil with a layer of plastic to control weeds and retain moisture. It’s an effective way to conserve water and reduce the need for herbicides. I use plastic sheeting to prepare my garden beds for planting and to control weeds in between crops.
Wood chips are a natural mulch that can be used to suppress weeds, retain moisture, and add nutrients to the soil. I use wood chips to mulch around my trees and shrubs, as well as in my vegetable garden. Plants like blueberries that prefer their soil to stay more consistently moist appreciate some wood chips to hold moisture.
Grass clippings are another natural mulch option that can be used to suppress weeds and add nutrients to the soil. I don’t suggest using grass clippings as a mulch as you are more likely to introduce more weeds into your garden than suppressing them. I use grass clippings to add nitrogen and heat up my compost pile.
Worm castings sound a little gross but are a nutrient-rich fertilizer that can be used to improve soil health and plant growth. They’re essentially the waste produced by earthworms as they digest organic matter. I use worm castings to fertilize my plants and improve soil structure.
This is a big word for lightly breaking down or nicking a plant’s seed coat. Some plants have really thick seed coats, and you can improve the likelihood and speed of those seeds sprouting by using a nail file to remove just a bit of that outer layer. This is true for nasturtiums and lots of wildflower seeds.
Understanding the seasonal changes and how they affect your plants is crucial. Here are some terms to help you navigate through the growing seasons:
Knowing your area’s frost dates is important for creating your planting plan. The first frost is the date when the temperature drops below freezing for the first time in the fall. It’s important to know this date so you can harvest any remaining warm season crops before they are damaged by the frost.
The last frost is the date when the temperature rises above freezing for the last time in the spring. This is the date when you can start planting warm-season crops. Frost-tolerant plants can still be planted after the first frost and before the final anticipated frost.
Cold temperatures can damage or kill plants, especially if they are not suited for your area’s USDA Hardiness Zone. Make sure to choose plants that are appropriate for your zone and protect them during cold snaps with frost cloth, blankets, or other coverings.
There are four possible growing seasons your vegetable garden might experience throughout the year, depending on your location. If you live in a colder climate, then you have a cold season during the winter; you’d need structures like cold frames or greenhouses to continue to grow frost-hardy plants.
The cool season is the time period when you get occasional frosts and temps stay under 65 degrees. Most people have cool seasons during their spring and fall, and this is their time to grow crops like lettuce, spinach, and broccoli.
The warm season occurs when temps stay between 65 and 85 degrees. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and many other fruiting plants love the warm season.
The hot season sees temps rise into the 90s and even triple digits. If you experience a hot season, you’ll want to stick to plants like okra, zinnias, and sweet potatoes that can handle the heat.
End of the Growing Season
As one growing season comes to an end, it’s time to start harvesting the last of your crops and preparing the garden for the next season. Remove any dead plants and debris, and add compost to enrich the soil for the next batch of plants.
LETTUCE HELP YOU COME TO TERMS WITH GARDENING
I hope this glossary/beginner’s guide has helped you feel a little more familiar with common gardening terms. Let us know if there’s something you still have questions about or a term we missed!
Listen, knowing what these terms mean is one thing. Going out and applying your knowledge in the garden is another. Gardening is a never-ending process of learning, experimenting, and being shocked by certain results. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance from experienced gardeners, and always be open to trying new things.
Enjoy the journey—hopefully you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful flowers or yummy things to eat along the way—and happy gardening!