A Gardener’s Glossary: 12 Popular Gardening Terms and What They Mean

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Gardening and growing plants has been both a labor of love and a necessity for centuries. Gardening has been both a labor of love and a necessity for centuries. There is nothing better for the heart and soul than enjoying home-grown flowers, fruits, or vegetables. Add that to the potential health benefits of eating well and getting the exercise inherent in planting a garden, and it is easy to see why gardening is one of the most popular pastimes in the world.

However, gardening is not as simple as planting seeds and waiting for fruits or flowers to appear. There is a long list of gardening-specific terminology that new gardeners must understand, whether they are looking for information about lux or trying to choose a growing medium. To help gardeners decipher the code, here are twelve popular gardening terms and what they mean.

Aeration

A simple definition of aeration regarding gardening is the perforation of soil to make it less compact and allow air to penetrate the surface. It is a common practice when first preparing a garden bed, as it loosens compact soil left over from previous years of growing or being used as a walking path. Without aeration, the soil’s drainage will suffer, resulting in sick plants that grow slowly and produce poorly.

There are several methods that gardeners use to aerate the soil. One way is to use a tiller to mix the top six to twelve inches of dirt. Another standard practice in aerating soil is by adding earthworms to garden beds or containers to aerate soil and aid in creating nutrient-rich organic matter.

Bolting

Bolting refers to a plant growing a tall flower stalk prematurely at a breakneck pace. Bolting is a problem for gardeners, as this happens to plants before they can be harvested. Typically, a plant will bolt as a last-ditch effort to produce seeds as it becomes stressed by hot or cold weather or changes in the number of light hours the plant receives.

To bolt, plants redirect energy from producing the more desirable parts of the plant, such as leaves and roots, to producing seeds as fast as possible. For gardeners, plants that are bolting mean the gardener can expect a poor harvest that is less flavorful. Examples of plants that bolt when stressed are broccoli, lettuce, basil, spinach, celery, carrots, and turnips.

Cultivar

“Cultivar” is short for cultivated variety and consists of plants reproduced by methods other than the planting of a seed, such as stem cuttings. Often called cloning, this propagation method results in an exact genetic copy of the plant from which the cutting has been taken.

Cultivars can also be propagated through grafting or tissue culture, but these are less common than using stem cuttings. A cultivar can be any new plant created by intentional cultivation by humans rather than one that is found growing in the wild. Many people refer to a plant’s variety, such as a hybrid breed of tomato, when they are actually referring to a cultivar.

Cutting

Cutting is used as a means of plant propagation, as explained above. To get a cutting, a stem is cut from the parent plant and planted in an appropriate growing medium, such as soil, coco noir, or Rockwool. Cuttings must be taken from plants that are in an active growth stage for them to be able to form roots.

There is a strong niche market for starting a cutting garden, especially for gardeners who specialize in growing bushes and fruit trees. Common plants to propagate from cuttings are rosemary, mint, celery, tomatoes, avocados, and most fruit trees.

Depending on what plant is being propagated, the gardener will need to use either a softwood, hardwood, semi-hardwood or herbaceous cutting. While it may sound like a complicated process to get the hang of, the different cutting types simply refer to the plant’s ideal growth stage for taking a stem cutting.

Deadheading

Deadheading is the practice of removing wilting or dead flowers from a plant. Most annuals and perennials continue to produce new blooms throughout the entire growing season, but only if the dead ones are removed periodically. When flowers age and die off, the plant redirects its energy from flower production to seed production.

To deadhead a flower, gardeners will need to pinch or cut the flower from the stem right below the flower’s base. Some plants are easier to deadhead if the entire plant is cut back by a few inches. Some examples of plants that benefit from deadheading include sage, shasta daisies, delphinium, and coneflowers.

Full Sun

Each plant in a garden has its own light requirement for optimal growth. Many of the most popular plants require full sun, which explains why gardeners always favor planting in an open field with nothing obstructing the sun’s rays. While it may seem like the definition of full sun is obvious, the truth is not so clear.

Most gardeners interpret full sun as a plant needing at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. However, some plants need eight to ten hours of direct sunlight per day, especially vegetable plants. Plants that require full sun but are grown in cloudy conditions will not taste as good and will produce poorly compared to those grown in ideal conditions. Gardeners must know the light requirements for each plant that they grow and plan their garden accordingly.

Germination

In gardening, germination is the process by which a plant grows from a seed. Seed germination success depends on several factors, including the germination requirements for the seed, water level, access to oxygen, temperature, and light. For example, cool-weather crops like spinach and broccoli require cold temperatures to sprout, whereas pepper seeds will not germinate until soil temperatures reach above 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

During germination, the seed’s outer shell is softened by water, which allows the taproot to break through. The taproot is the first main root that emerges from a seed and grows straight down into the growing medium. The first leaves present on the seedling are called the cotyledons, and they feed the plant until it produces its first true leaves.

Hardening Off

Most gardeners start their seeds indoors and allow their plants to grow to a certain height before planting them outdoors. However, plants accustomed to indoor growing conditions need to toughen up before they can handle life outside, as exposure to uneven temperatures, natural wind, and bright sunlight could burn or kill them. The process of getting plants acclimated to the outdoors is called hardening off.

To harden off young plants, gardeners will gradually introduce them to the outdoors, starting with a few hours a day and increasing that time until they can be left outside safely. Many gardeners will begin the process by placing them under a shade or waiting for a cloudy day. Depending on the plant, the process can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks.

Hardiness

Many gardeners that live in areas with extreme weather will choose plants to grow based on their reported hardiness. Hardiness can refer to a plant’s ability to withstand harsh weather, such as excessively hot, cold, or dry conditions. However, most gardeners use the term to describe a plant’s ability to survive the cold.

The U.S.Department of Agriculture categorizes geographical regions into hardiness zones. Each zone is labeled with a different number that corresponds to the first and last frost dates. Garden plants are usually labeled with the hardiness zone number that provides the best conditions for them, making it easy for gardeners to choose which plants to grow in their area.

Heirloom

Browsing a seed store, gardeners often come across varieties of plants that are labeled “heirloom.” What defines an heirloom variety can vary, but it generally means that it originated before World War II. Heirloom plants are popular among older generations, many of whom have been growing the same variety for decades.

Many heirloom vegetables have an odd appearance compared to what is common in grocery stores. However, these usually have much better flavor than newer varieties. Despite their better taste, heirlooms do not produce uniform fruit in timing or appearance, making them a less-attractive commercial farmer option.

Medium

In gardening, “medium” refers to the material in which plants are grown. Most growers use a soil mixture as their preferred growing medium, but there are soilless growing mediums available for small-scale gardens. The word medium is often used interchangeably with the term substrate, though medium is more common.

A growing medium can be a wide range of materials so long as it provides a place for the plant to anchor itself, has enough space for root respiration, and can hold the right amount of water and nutrients. Common materials for growing mediums include perlite, peat moss, coco noir, Rockwool, aggregate clay pellets, and compost.

N-P-K

One of the most important terms used in gardening is N-P-K, which stands for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are the three primary nutrients that a plant needs and make up a complete fertilizer. Plants need a different ratio of these nutrients depending on the type of plant it is and the plant’s growth stage.

For example, nitrogen is responsible for leaf production, making it an essential nutrient for plants like spinach and lettuce. However, plants like green beans produce their own nitrogen and will suffer if given too much. Gardeners need to know the specific nutrient requirements of the plants they grow before adding any fertilizer.

Final Thoughts

Agriculture and gardening have come a long way from its humble roots thousands of years ago. Along with all the advancements in growing techniques has come an entire dictionary of gardening-specific terminology to understand. New gardeners who brush up on their gardening terms are off to an excellent start.