Gardening Terms and Words – Vocabulary For All Skill Levels

There are all sorts of words and phrases you will hear as you learn more about gardening, and the jargon can be overwhelming.

To help you soak up as much information as possible when reading about growing your own food or chatting with a more experienced gardener, here is your gardening vocabulary lesson.

It’s another one of those gardening cheatsheets (like this one about plant families!) that you will want to come back and revisit, because it’s chock full of information.

Blueberry Flowers

Gardening Terms

Plant Parts and Anatomy

Foliage: a word describing the leaves and/or branches of a plant

Types of Seeds

Here is a fantastic article explaining the differences between heirloom, hybrid and open-pollinated.

Plant Types Vocabulary

Annual: a plant that completes its entire life cycle in one year

Biennial: a plant that takes two years to complete its entire life cycle

Perennial: a plant that grows for more than two years

Cultivar: a variety of a plant developed through selective breeding. Most vegetables are cultivars as they have been selectively bred over generations to produce desirable characteristics

Starts, or Transplants Growing Indoors

Starting Seeds Indoors

Dampen Off: a fungus that causes the stem to rot off at the soil level (be sure your seed starting containers are clean – if reusing, be sure to wash thoroughly between uses)

Harden off: slowly acclimating starts to the outside elements by placing them outside for a few hours one day, four hours the next day and progressing daily until they are ready to be outside all day and then planted outside to continue their life cycle

Rootbound: when a plant’s roots have outgrown the pot it is in and can no longer stretch and expand due to being trapped, or bound, inside the pot

Starts, or Transplants: immature plants that are often started inside in small trays before being put in the ground outside (these are the small plants you see for sale at garden stores)

Seedlings: the very first stage of a plant grown from seed, when the first stem/leaves start to emerge from the seed

Starting Seeds Outside

Broadcast: sprinkling down seeds without purposefully placing them in a spot

Direct Sow: to plant a seed outdoors, in the area that the plant will remain for its entire life cycle

Sow: a term used for planting seeds

Thin: the act of cutting plants at the soil level to allow the others plants near it to grow to maturity (e.g. if you sprinkle down an entire packet of kale seeds, you will need to thin some of them as they grow or there won’t be enough space for any to reach full size.)

Undersow: to plant seeds in an area that already has established seeds or crops  – This is usually used in reference to sowing cover crops in the *understory of the vegetable crop, so that the cover crop can slowly get established before the vegetable crop is harvested. *understory: a layer of vegetation beneath the main canopy of the forest

Germinationwhen a seed first starts growing. This marks the end of a seed’s dormancy, or time of inactivity.

Growing Methods

Bareroot: plants that are dug up from the ground after they enter dormancy and are stored without any soil around their roots until replanted (strawberries are an example of a plant that can be purchased bareroot)

Cutting, or slip: to take part of the stem, roots or leaves of a mature plant and place it in potting soil to grow a new plant

Graft: tissues of two plants are joined together to make one new plant (e.g. You can graft multiple apple trees onto one tree, so the tree will produce many different kinds of apples on one tree.)

Propagate: to grow plants from seed, cuttings, or grafting

Oakleaf Lettuce with Frost

Weather Gardening Terms

Bolting: when a plant goes to seed due to increased daylight hours and/or high temperatures (the plant puts all of its energy into reproducing and stops putting energy into the edible parts of the plant, potentially causing them to become bitter)

Cool season crops: crops that grow in cool temperatures, usually in spring and fall, and bolt in high temperatures – more information and examples here

Frost date: dates for your average first and last freeze – find yours by heading here and clicking on Frost Calculator

Full sun: at least 6 hours of direct sunlight (many warm-season crops need 8-10 hours of direct sunlight)

Growing season: the time between the last average frost and the first average frost for your area (This is important when determining if a crop is right for your area because each crop has a certain number of days until it reaches maturity – usually found on the seed packet.)

Hard Freeze: when outside temperatures drop below 25°F for four, or more, hours (most plants need protection at 25°F or below)

Hardiness zone: a geographic zone based on the minimum temperatures of the region and the plants that can survive those temperatures

Light frost: temperature drops below 32°F (many cool season crops become sweeter after a light frost, such as kale and carrots)

Warm season crops: crops that germinate and grow in warm weather and will not survive a freeze (most do not do well under 50°F) – more information and examples of these crops here

Buckwheat Flowers

Soil Terms

Cover crop: a plant whose purpose is enriching the soil with organic matter, preventing soil erosion or adding green manure to the soil

Mulch: an organic or inorganic material used to cover soil in order to hold in more moisture, eliminate weeds, regulate soil temperature and more – more information about types of mulch and its benefits here

Sheet mulch: layering thick pieces of organic material on top of soil to suppress weeds and build soil fertility – more specifics and a diagram here

Soil amendment: a material added to the soil with the purpose of making improvements (adding nutrients for plant life, retaining moisture, aerating, etc.)

Soil quality: how fertile a soil is. This is a general term describing how rich a soil is in nutrients and other beneficial factors

Humus: the dark organic material that makes up soil, composed of any variety of living matter such as decayed leaves, twigs, animal and insect matter

Compost: the product of decayed organic material, typically used in gardening as a fertilizer and soil amendment

Good drainage: soil that drains water well and doesn’t get easily over-saturated

Bumblebee Pollinating Marigold

Garden Helpers, Pests and Pest Control Words

Beneficials: organisms that help by pollinating plants, eating garden pests (e.g. ladybugs eat aphids) and/or parasitizing pests

Companion planting: plants that benefit others when grown next to them (by providing shade, deterring pests, etc.)

Crop rotation: the practice of rotating your crops so that the same plants are not grown in the same space for more than one season (This method is often used to manage pests in organic gardening.)

Pest: insects that cause harm to plants and/or eat your crops

Harvest Terminology

Cut and come again: you can cut a few leaves and the plant will continue to produce more, allowing you to harvest from one plant for an extended period of time (most greens, are cut and come again, such as lettuces and herbs)

Tomato Terms

Determinate: bushier tomato plants that have a shorter season and fruit that typically ripens all within a few weeks – more information and tips for growing tomatoes here.

Indeterminate: vining tomato plants with no set height that ripen fruit throughout the season and may grow until the first frost- more information and tips for growing tomatoes here.

Pruning: cutting, trimming, and removing plant parts for aesthetic reasons (to affect the plant shape and how it grows) or functional reasons (to help the plant focus on fruiting or developing more flower, for example).

Plant Reproduction

Dead-head: to remove dead blossoms in order to encourage more flower growth or prevent the plant from self-seeding

Self-fertile: a plant that does not need pollen from another plant to reproduce

Self-seed: when plants spread large amounts of their seed on their own

Gardening Tools

Hoe: a long-handled gardening tool with a flat, thin metal blade at a roughly 90 degree angle, used mainly for weeding and breaking up soil

Wheelbarrow: a hand-driven small cart with a single wheel at the front for carrying loads around the garden

Trowel: a small, handheld shovel

Shovel: a gardening tool with a long handle and a metal scoop, used for digging and transporting soil and other materials

Rake: a gardening tool with a long handle and short metal tines, used for spreading compost as well as turning and smoothing out soil

Cold Frame: a box shaped frame with four sides and a glass or plastic top, used to extend the growing season by allowing plants to be warmer than the surrounding area, as well as to protect plants

Gloves: gardening gloves are typically made from a canvas or thick cotton fabric with rubber dots on the palm and inside of fingers to provide protection, grip, and keep your hands clean from soil

Borage Flower

I hope this will be a good point of reference for you as you get to know all the lingo of the gardening world. There were many times when I had to look up a term I wasn’t familiar with while reading one of the many gardening books that have taught me along the way. Enjoy this time of learning!

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