100+ Gardening Vocabulary Terms You Need to Know in 2018 - Modern Farmer

100+ Gardening Vocabulary Terms You Need to Know in 2018

What exactly is a cultivar? Is humus the same as hummus? Horticultural terms, decoded.

All the garden jargon you need to know in one handy place.
Photography Jamie Hooper / shutterstock.com

Horticulture, like any science, has its own lingo. Whether you’re a newbie trying to decode gardening instructions or an old pro that never learned the nuances of the trade, Modern Farmer is here to help! Study up on the following terms and you’ll be talking the talk in no time.

  1. Aerate: Loosening the soil to introduce more air and improve drainage; tilling is one way to aerate the soil, though a machine called in aerator is often used to aerate lawns with minimal soil disturbance

  1. Alternate Bearing: The tendency of many fruit and nut trees to alternate large crops one year followed by a small, or nonexistent, crop the next year

  1. Annual: A plant that lives for only a single growing season; most annuals grow in spring and summer, dying with the first frost of fall, though some annual species thrive in cool weather, setting seed and dying when the weather warms in spring


  1. Average Frost Date: The average day in a given location of either the first frost in the fall (known as the average date of the first frost) or the last frost in spring (known as the average date of the last frost)


  1. Balled and Burlapped: Trees and shrubs that are sold without a pot, their roots wrapped in burlap instead; this method is often used for large specimens

  1. Bareroot: A plant sold without a pot or soil around its roots; bareroot trees, shrubs, and vines are available in late winter and early spring when the plants are fully dormant


  1. Beneficial Insect: Insects that act as pollinators, prey on pests, or perform other useful services in the garden, as opposed to those that are considered pests; examples include green lacewings, ladybugs and praying mantises

  1. Biennial: A plant that lives for two growing seasons; biennials typically produce only leaves in the first year, and then flower and set seed the following year


  1. Bolt: A verb describing what an annual plant does when it sends up a flower stalk and sets seed; the term is typically applied to cool season vegetable crops that go to seed prematurely as a result of hot weather


  • Brassica: Plants in the Brassicaceae family, which include many common vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kale, Brussels sprouts, and arugula


  • Bunchgrass: Also referred to as clumping grass, these species form tight clumps rather than lawn-like mats and are often used in landscape design; many native North American kinds of grass have a clumping habit, while most lawn grasses are non-native

  • Clay: The tiniest particles found in soil, less than .002 millimeters in size; clay excels at holding both nutrients and moisture, though soils with excessive clay content drain poorly and become rock-hard when dry


  • Cold Frame: A miniature greenhouse that fits over a single planting bed; these structures typically have a hinged lid made with clear plastic or glass to let in the sun


  • Cold Frame: A simple season-extending structure that encloses a planting bed in order to hold in the sun’s heat in spring or fall; like a mini-greenhouse, the lid of a cold frame is made of glass, plastic sheeting or some other transparent material

  • Compost Tea: A liquid fertilizer made by soaking compost in water to extract the nutrients; an aerator is often to used to encourage the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the brew


  • Cool Season Crop: Annual crops that thrive in cool conditions, such as lettuce, peas, beets, radishes, broccoli, and potatoes; these grow best when daytime temperatures are between 60 and 80 degrees


  • Cover Crops: Species grown in order to improve soil quality, rather than to harvest something


  • Crabgrass: A generic name for weedy grasses that spreads via rhizomes, making it very difficult to eradicate them; commonly found in lawns, flower borders and garden beds

  • Crop Rotation:A deliberate system of planting different crops in different places each year in order to avoid the buildup of pathogens in the soil that are associated with particular crops


  • Cross-Pollination: When two or more plants of the same species pollinate each others’ flowers; for many fruit trees, cross-pollination is necessary to produce a crop

  • Cucurbit: Plants in the Cucurbitaceae family, which include many common vegetables, such as cucumbers, squash, and melons


  • Cultivar: A plant variety developed through selective breeding; cultivars are developed for many purposes, including fruiting, flowering, and disease-resistance characteristics

  • Cultivar: A plant variety produced through selective breeding techniques; virtually every vegetable has been bred into many cultivars, each with unique traits, ranging from size and coloration to pest resistance and nutritional qualities


  • Cutting: A short piece of a plant that is clipped off for propagation purposes; cuttings are typically stuck into a rooting medium (such as potting soil or perlite) and kept in a humid environment, which encourages roots to form at the bottom and new leaves at the top


  • Damping Off: A disease (which may be caused by a number of different pathogens) that kills seedlings just after they sprout; avoiding excessive moisture, encouraging good air flow and using sterilized pots and potting soil are the main preventive measures

  • Day-Neutral: Plants whose flowering is not dictated by day-length, which includes tomatoes, corn, and cucumbers; some crops that are not naturally day-neutral, such as strawberries, have been bred that way in an effort to extend the harvest season

  • Days to Maturity: The average number of days, typically printed on seed packets, between when a seed of a particular crop is sown and when it is ready for harvest


  • Dead Heading: Removing spent blooms from flowering plants in order to encourage another round of flowers to emerge


  • Deciduous: Plants that lose their foliage during the winter months

  • Deer-Resistant: Plants that are unpalatable to deer; note that deer sometimes eat plants labeled deer-resistant, though they typically opt for other species when they have the choice

  • Determinate: Tomato varieties that grow to a certain size (usually no more than 3 to 4 feet in height) and then stop; these are useful on patios and in other contexts where space is a concern

  • Digging Fork: An implement designed to loosen the soil in preparation for planting


  • Dioecious: Term for species in which male and female flowers are produced on separate plants, such as asparagus, spinach, and kiwis; no fruit will be produced unless both the male and female plants are grown in close proximity, though this makes no difference on crops that are grown solely for their leaves or shoots

  • Direct Seeding: Sowing seeds where they are to grow, as opposed to sowing them in pots and transplanting them later


  • Double Digging: A special technique used to prepare a planting area, which creates an extra deep bed of loose, rich soil


  • Drainage: The ability for water to pass freely through the soil; without good drainage, which can be achieved by building raised beds or adding soil amendments, the planting area becomes waterlogged

  • Drip irrigation: Any type of irrigation in which the water drips out slowly at the base of individual plants; this approach uses far less water than sprinklers


  • Dwarf: Plant that has been bred to be smaller than is typical for the species; fruit trees are often classified according to their degree of dwarfness

  • Elemental Sulfur: A natural product used to reduce the pH of alkaline soil so that it will support the growth of a wider range of plants; sulfur is also used as an organic insecticide and fungicide

  • Espalier: Pruning and training trees to grow in a flat form, typically against a wall


  • Evergreen: Plants that retain their foliage throughout the year

  • Family: In the taxonomic classification of organisms, this is the rank above genus and below order (family names are written in Latin and always end in –ceae); similar types of plants are often referred by their family name, such as brassicas (Brassicaceae), nightshades (Solanaceae) and roses (Rosaceae)

  • Female Flower: Flower that contains only female reproductive organs, including the stigma, which receives pollen; female flowers, once fertilized, produce fruit and seeds

  • Floating Row Cover: Lightweight garden fabric that allows sun, air, and moisture to pass through; used to cover planting beds, these are employed for a variety of purposes including holding in the sun’s warmth in spring or fall, shading plants in summer, and restricting the spread of pests and disease

  • Foliar Fertilizing: Spraying the foliage of plants with liquid fertilizer; pores on the underside of leaves are able to absorb the nutrients directly from the liquid


  • Furrow: A small trench made in the soil for planting seeds; may also refer to the depression between raised planting beds


  • Genus: In the taxonomic classification of organisms, this is the rank above species and below family (plural: genera); it is synonymous with the “scientific” or “Latin” name of plants (i.e. Rosa, Salvia and Quercus) and is always capitalized

  • Graft: To splice two portions of a plant together so that they fuse into to solid piece; grafting is used to attach scion (piece of wood with preferable fruiting or flowering traits) to a rootstock (separate but closely related genetic material selected for desirable root characteristics)

  • Green Manure: Growing plants that accumulate nutrients and organic matter, which are tilled into the earth to improve soil quality; the terms green manure and cover crops are often used interchangeably


  • Greensand: A soil amendment that is mined from the ocean floor; it is a natural, organic source of potassium and numerous micronutrients

  • Groundcover: A plant that spreads across the ground, rooting itself as it goes; these species are useful for landscaping large areas on a small budget

  • Guano: Organic fertilizer made from the excrement of seabirds and bats; available in both high-nitrogen and high-phosphorus forms, guano is mined from dried deposits found beneath historic nesting areas in some parts of the world

  • Habit: Manner of growth; examples include upright (tall and narrow), spreading (short and broad), prostrate (growing flat against the ground), dense (tightly spaced leaves and branches) and open (loosely spaced leaves and branches)

  • Hand Pollinate: Manually fertilizing flowers with pollen taken from the anther of a male flower and dabbed onto the stigma of a female flower, typically with a small brush; this technique is often used in breeding new varieties, though it is also required to ensure fruit production in a small number of crops that are not readily pollinated by wind or insects

  • Harden Off: The process of gradually exposing plants to outdoor conditions; by letting seedlings sit outside for a few hours more each day over the course of a week, they suffer less shock when transplanted into the garden

  • Hardiness Zones: A system of classifying plants according to the minimum winter temperature they can tolerate; the USDA has developed a map of 26 hardiness zones, defined by 5-degree temperature increments

  • Heavy Feeder: Crop that produces good yields only in highly fertile soil; examples include corn, cabbage, celery and broccoli

  • Herbaceous: Plants that do not have woody stems, only soft green stalks, and leaves


  • Humus: A complex soil substance that results from the decomposition of organic matter; soils rich in humus tend to be highly fertile


  • Hybrid: A plant cultivar resulting from the intentional cross-pollination of two closely related species or varieties


  • Indeterminate: Tomato varieties that continue to grow and spread continuously until the first frost of fall; these cultivars require a stout trellis

  • Inoculant: A substance containing beneficial soil microbes; commercial inoculants are used for a variety of purposes, from hastening the rate of decomposition in a compost pile to improving soil fertility


  • Integrated Pest Management: A strategy of controlling crop pests through biological methods and cultivation practices, as opposed to chemical pesticides


  • Invasive: Plants that spread aggressively and are difficult to eradicate

  • Iron Chelate: A soil amendment that corrects chlorosis, a condition characterized by yellow leaves with green veins; iron chelate is available in both organic and synthetic forms


  • Kelp Meal: A soil amendment made from dried, ground seaweed; it is a natural, organic source of potassium and numerous micronutrients

  • Lawn Substitute: Mat-forming plants that tolerate foot traffic; examples include clover, Roman chamomile, and thyme

  • Light Feeder: Crops that can produce good yields on marginally fertile soil; includes most herbs, greens, and root crops

  • Loam: Fertile, well-drained soil; loams have an ideal balance of sand, silt, and clay particles, along with abundant organic matter and humus content


  • Long-Day: Plants that form flowers only during summer, when there are more than 12 hours of sun each day; these include spinach, lettuce and other plants that tend to “bolt” in early summer

  • Male Flower: Flower that contains only male reproductive organs, including the stamen, where pollen is produced; male flowers are incapable of producing fruit and seeds

  • Mast: A crop of nuts

  • Microclimate: Temperature, moisture and other environmental conditions as determined by slope, tree canopy, pavement, structures and other elements of the landscape; understanding of microclimatic conditions helps to identify the optimal location for different types of plantings

  • Micronutrients: Also referred to as trace elements, these nutrients play minor, but essential roles in plant health; includes boron (B), chlorine (Cl), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), and zinc (Zn)

  • Monoecious: Term for species in which male and female flowers are produced on the same plants, such as squash, cucumbers, and most fruit trees; with monoecious plants, only a single specimen is needed for pollination (and thus fruit production) to occur

  • Mulch: Material used to protect the soil, including wood chips, straw and bark nuggets; mulch protects the soil from erosion, adds organic matter, conserves moisture and keeps plant roots cool

  • Native Bee: This refers to the thousands of species of wild bees, which are typically solitary and stingless (unlike domesticated honeybees, which become aggressive in defending their hives); most native bees are tiny and rarely noticed, though they are important pollinators

  • Naturalized: Plants that have spread over a large area over time, whether by self-seeding or via creeping rhizomes; this is the goal of native plant restoration

  • Nightshade: Plants in the Solanaceae family, which include many common vegetables, such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant


  • Nitrogen: Essential nutrient responsible for green vegetative growth in plants (abbreviated N on fertilizer products); animal manures, blood meal, fish meal and freshly cut vegetation are common sources of organic nitrogen


  • Nitrogen-Fixing: Plants that form a symbiotic relationship with soil microbes that chemically convert atmospheric nitrogen to a soluble form of nitrogen, the nutrient responsible for the rapid green growth


  • N-P-K: Shorthand for the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the three most important plant nutrients; the three numbers listed on bags of fertilizer correspond to the percentage of these nutrients contained in the product


  • Open-Pollinated: Crop varieties that, unlike hybrids, produce seed that is identical to the parent plant; heirloom vegetables are typically open-pollinated, which makes it easier to save and replant their seed


  • Organic Matter: Dead and decaying plant or animal tissues, including leaves, roots, manure, and the bodies of insects, earthworms, and microbes; compost piles are comprised primarily of organic matter, an essential ingredient of fertile soil


  • Peat Moss: A common ingredient in potting soil, peat moss is the decomposed remains of plants that have collected over millennia at the bottom of northern bogs; this spongy material has exceptional water holding capacity and is also used lower the pH of soils for acid-loving plants.

  • Perennial: A plant that lives year after year; all woody trees, shrubs, and vines, and many herbaceous species are perennials


  • Perfect Flower: Also known as a complete flower, these contain both the male and female organs; perfect flowers are self-pollinating

  • Perlite: A common ingredient in potting soil, perlite is a volcanic mineral that has been heated, causing it to puff up; perlite has exceptional water and air holding capacity, which helps to prevent soil from becoming compacted or drying out

  • pH: A relative measure of acidity or alkalinity in the soil; a wide range of plants thrive with a pH between 5.5 and 7 (slightly acidic), though some plants prefer higher pH (mainly desert species) and others prefer lower pH (such as blueberries, cranberries and azalea)

  • Phosphorus: Essential nutrient involved in photosynthesis and various metabolic functions (abbreviated P on fertilizer products); bone meal and rock dust are the primary sources of organic phosphorus


  • Pinch Back: To remove the tip of a growing stem, whether with the fingers or hand pruners; this stimulates branching lower down on the plant, encouraging a shorter, bushier growth habit

  • Potassium: Essential nutrient involved in various metabolic functions in plants (abbreviated K on fertilizer products); greensand, kelp meal and wood ashes are the primary sources of organic potassium
  • Rhizome: A fleshy root that grows laterally on or near the surface of the soil, from which new stems sprout; plants that spread via rhizomes, many of which are considered invasive, often colonize large areas

  • Rootbound: A plant whose roots have grown into a tight mass inside of a pot; plants are healthier and more vigorous when transplanted before they become rootbound

  • Rooting Hormone: A substance, whether synthetic or naturally derived, that encourages cuttings to form roots; cuttings of species that are difficult to root are often dipped in rooting hormone

  • Sand: The largest particles found in soil, .05 to 2 millimeters in size; soil with a high sand content drains readily, but nutrients are easily leached away


  • Scarification: Penetrating the outer layer of seeds to encourage germination; depending on the species in question, sandpaper, files or other tools may be used to open the hard outer coat of a seed so that water may enter

  • Self-Pollinating: Plants with the ability to pollinate themselves, meaning they can produce fruit with their own pollen (as opposed to those that require the pollen of another plant of the same species), which is useful where space is limited; many fruit trees are not naturally self-pollinating (also referred to as self-fertile) though breeders have developed varieties to overcome this trait

  • Sheet Mulch: A technique used to eliminate weeds without digging or herbicides; a layer of newspaper or cardboard is spread over the ground followed by mulch on top, smothering the weeds below

  • Short-Day: Plants that form flowers only during spring or fall, when there are less than 12 hours of sun each day; these include onions, poinsettia and chrysanthemums

  • Side Dress: Applying a strip of fertilizer along the side of a bed of established plants in order to maintain adequate nutrient levels through the end of the growing season

  • Silt: Intermediate soil particle, .002 to .05 millimeters; silt combines the best traits of both sand and clay particles, retaining moisture and nutrients effectively while draining freely


  • Slow Release Fertilizer: A granular fertilizer that has been coated with a substance that prevents the nutrients from leaching into the soil all at once


  • Soil Amendment: Any substance added to a growing area to improve soil conditions, including compost, fertilizers, and substances like kelp, rock dust, and greensand


  • Standard: Full-size fruit tree; most modern fruit trees are not standards, as they have been grafted onto dwarfing rootstock in order to create smaller, more easily harvested trees

  • Stratification: Subjecting seeds to the conditions required to break their dormancy (mimicking the natural processes that they’ve evolved with), so that germination may occur; the most common form is cold stratification, which involves storing the seeds in a refrigerator or freezer for weeks or months to mimic the winter season

  • Subsoil: The infertile layer of soil beneath topsoil that contains minerals, but little to no biological activity or organic matter; also called mineral soil

  • Swale: A broad, shallow ditch used to collect water along a slope and encourage it to soak slowly into the ground; swales help to prevent erosion

  • Tender Perennial: Sometimes referred to as a half-hardy perennial, these are plants that do not tolerate freezing weather and must be brought indoors in order to survive the winter; examples include heliotrope, fuchsia and begonia

  • Tilth: A qualitative measure of soil quality, based on parameters such as organic matter content, water-holding capacity, and texture


  • Top Dress: Spreading fertilizer or compost over the surface of the soil just before planting, as opposed to tilling the amendments into the soil; can also refer to spreading fertilizer over an established planting, a technique often used on lawns

  • Topsoil: The fertile, biologically-active layer of soil closest to the surface; topsoil includes organic matter, humus and a plethora of microbes, earthworms, and insects

  • True-To-Type: Plants grown from seeds that exhibit the same characteristics of the parent (the plant that produced the seed) which is typical of open-pollinated heirloom varieties; as a result of hybridization, grafting and other forms of genetic manipulation, many modern crop varieties do not grow true-to-type, however

  • Variegated: Plants with multi-colored foliage

  • Vermiculite: A common ingredient in potting soil, vermiculite is a mica-like mineral that has been heated, causing it to expand into a spongy material with exceptional water and air holding capacity; it has similar properties as perlite

  • Volunteer: A plant that sprouts unexpectedly from seed, whether in a compost pile or a bed; unlike weeds, volunteers are desirable plants, such as tomatoes that sprout in a bed where they had been grown the previous year

  • Warm Season Crop: Annual crops that thrive in warm conditions, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, basil, okra, and squash; these grow best when daytime temperatures are between 75 and 85 degrees


  • Wet Feet: The condition of having waterlogged soil around the roots of a plant; this contributes to fungal disease in most crops, and can kill plants outright

  • Worm Castings: The excrement of earthworms; worms eat and digest organic matter, converting it into this highly fertile substance


  • Xeriscaping: The use of low water plants, such as cacti, succulents and other drought-tolerant species in an effort to eliminate irrigation



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