Gardening is a fascinating and rewarding hobby, but it can be a little intimidating to get started. There is so much to learn about plants, seeds, soils, temperatures, etc. Some people seem to come by their skills naturally while others feel they lack the “green thumb” necessary to be a good gardener. However, everyone has their share of successes and failures that help us gain confidence as we move forward.

If you are a new gardener planning your first spring garden or are just thinking about it, you may be daunted by some of the terminology in gardening catalogs and websites and on seed packages and starter plant tags. To help you learn what these terms mean, here is a basic primer!

Plant and Seed Terminology

growing plants

Annual - A plant that has a one-year life cycle.

Bare root - Dormant plants that have been removed from the ground, with their soil also removed, and preserved until later planting.

Biennial - A plant that has a two-year life cycle.

Bolting - Usually the result of excessive heat and sun exposure, bolting occurs when a plant produces premature flowers or seeds instead of a crop.

Botanical name - The scientific name of a plant, consisting of the Genus (always capitalized) and species (not capitalized).

Deciduous - A plant that loses its leaves each fall or winter.

Dormancy - The period—usually winter—when a plant rests.

Evergreen - A plant that keeps its leaves throughout the growing season.

Family – A term for classifying similar organisms.

Fertilizer - Material that is used to feed plants.

Fungicide – A substance used to control fungi.

Genus - A term for a group of plant species that are closely related.

Germination - The beginning of a seed’s growth.

Groundcover - A low-growing (usually 18 inches or less), spreading plant.

Hardy - A plant that can withstand exposure to frost without protection.

Heirloom - An open-pollinated plant variety that has remained unchanged for 50 years or more.

Herbicide - A substance that kills plants or inhibits plant growth.

Humus - Decomposed plant matter that has broken down in the soil.

Invasive - A plant that is difficult to control.

Native – A term usually used to describe plants that were found growing in a given area before man introduced non-native plants.

Non-native or exotic – A term usually used to describe plants that were not found in an area before man arrived.

Open pollination - Seeds that develop and grow naturally through wind, insect activity, or soil movement.

Ornamental - Plants grown for the way they look, not for consumption or for economic use.

Perennial – A plant that lives for multiple growing seasons.

Pistil - The female seed-bearing organ of a flower, consisting of the ovary, style, and stigma.

Pollination - The transfer of pollen from a flower’s stamen to the pistil, which results in the forming of a seed.

Seedling - A plant that has just emerged from its seed.

Self-pollinating – A term to describe plants that do not need pollen from another plant to produce fruit.

Stamen - The male organ of a flower, consisting of the filament and the pollen-containing anther

Weed - A plant growing where it is not wanted and where it adds no value.

Woody – A plant with bark on older stems that usually survive the winter and increase in size each year.

Soil Terminology

Acidity - Soil pH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity. A pH of 7 is neutral, above 7 is alkaline and below 7 is acidic. Most plants prefer soil that is slightly acidic with a pH of 6 to 6.5.

Clay - Soil that contains 50 percent or more clay. Clay soil is heavy and drains slowly.

Compost - A mixture of decayed plant matter that is used as a soil conditioner, mulch, or fertilizer.

Inorganic – Substance derived from non-living material.

Loam – Rich soil that contains relatively equal parts of sand, silt, and clay.

Mulch - Material that helps to cool the soil and/or reduce erosion, evaporation, and weeds.

Organic – A substance derived from living material.

pH - A measure of the soil’s acidity or alkalinity of the soil on a scale ranging from 0 to 14. Neutral soil has a pH of 7.

Sand - The largest particles of minerals that comprise soil.

Silt - Medium-size pieces of minerals that comprise soil (smaller particles than sand and larger than clay).

Soil - The layer of material on the earth’s crust that is composed of tiny mineral pieces, living and non-living organisms, air, and water.

Soil texture – The proportion of clay, silt, and sand in the soil.

Sludge - Sediment from wastewater treatment plants that is often used as a fertilizer or as an additive for livestock feed.

Vermiculite - A light, spongy mineral (also called "mica") that has been heated to the point of expansion and that can hold water and air.

Waterlogged - Soil that is completely saturated with water.

General Gardening Techniques and Terminology

Dead heading – Pinching or snipping off spent flowers.

Direct sowing - Germinating seeds at the planting site rather than growing them indoors to transplant them later.

Full sun – At least six hours of direct sunlight each day.

Hardening off - Slowly exposing a plant to cooler temperatures to help it adapt to them (also called acclimating).

Hardiness zone - A geographic temperature zone that categorizes where certain plants can thrive.

Horticulture - The art and science of plant cultivation.

Hybrid - Crossbreeding of two different plants with distinct characteristics.

Naturalized - To plant without a pattern.

Pest – A term used for any insect, weed, or plant pathogen (bacteria, fungus, virus).

Pesticide – A substance used to control or kill pests.

Pruning - The process of removing dead, diseased, or damaged leaves or branches.

Raised bed – A garden bed that is elevated off the ground.

Side dressing – The process of working small amounts of fertilizer into the soil surrounding a mature plant.

Staking - The practice of using a stick, pole, or other object to support a plant as it grows.

Thinning - To reduce the number of seedlings in order to allow better air circulation and light exposure.

Transplant - To remove plants from one location and replant them in another.

Trellis - Latticework that supports climbing plants.