Garden Terminology 101: A Guide for Beginners
From perennials to pollination and more, two gardening experts break down the meaning behind some popular gardening phrases and terms.
Whether you're a seasoned green thumb or a plant rookie, understanding key garden terminology is crucial. "Knowing basic gardening terms makes it easier to ask for advice or discuss your progress with your gardening friends," explains Christopher Landercasper, the Director of Farming Operations for the Sonoma's Best Hospitality Group. "Plus, it helps ensure you are employing the right methods when gardening."
So, what should you do when you can't decipher the meaning behind a common phrase? For starters, horticulturist Amy Enfield of Bonnie Plants recommends looking it up in a good gardening book—or when all else fails, try Google. "Some general gardening books have a glossary of terms in the back of the book for quick reference," she says. "Or you can look it up online." You can also check in here: We asked Enfield and Landercasper to explain some basic garden terminology, and here's what they had to say.
Annuals, Perennials, and Biennials
Before you can successfully grow any plant, Enfield says it's essential to understand its life cycle. "Annuals are plants that complete their lifecycle (seed to flower) in a single growing season and then die; therefore they have to be planted new each year," she explains. "Perennials are plants that come back year after year, while biennials take two growing seasons (years) to complete their life cycle. Biennials do not flower the first year, but flower the second year, set seed, and then die."
According to Landercasper, germination is the moment the seed ends its dormant state and begins to metabolize, divide cells, and begin its growth cycle. "Germination is most often referred to as a percentage," he explains. "Most companies test their seeds before offering them for sale and write on the package the germination percent. This is the expected number of the seeds in the packet that are actually viable, healthy seeds. Good seeds are generally in the high 90th percentile."
Most simply put, pollination is what happens when the pollen from a male flower combines with the stigma of a female flower of the same or very similar plant species. "Pollination can occur by the wind, through an insect, or it can be done by hand if a gardener is trying to cross breed species," Landercasper explains. "Some plants such as tomatoes and grapes are self-pollinating, where each flower has both male and female parts."
Full Sun, Part Sun, and Partial Shade
If you aren't planting your flowers in the right kind of sun, there's a good chance they won't grow. "Full sun refers to an area that receives, or a plant that needs, at least six hours or more of direct sunlight daily," Enfield says. "Partial sun and partial shade refer to plants that need between four to six hours of sun per day. While they are often used interchangeably, part sun puts greater emphasis on the amount of sun needed, while part shade usually refers to plants or areas that need or provide some relief from intense afternoon sun."
A plant's ability to survive harsh growing conditions, namely cold and freezing temperatures, is referred to by its hardiness. "The hardier the plant the more likely it is to survive freezing temperatures," Enfield explains. "When referring to perennials, trees, and shrubs, hardiness usually means their ability to survive the winter months. When referring to annuals, the term hardy is sometimes used to describe plants that will grow in cold weather (like early spring or late fall)."
Bolting occurs when a gardener does not harvest their crop, and the plants move past the peak edibility stage and into a flowering and seed production phase. "For example, lettuces and cabbages should be harvested when the head is large and still firm, but if you allow them to continue their growth cycle, the heads will open up and a tall flower stalk will grow," Landercasper explains.
If you aren't in the know about companion planting, now's the time to learn. "Companion planting means planting different crops near each other because they benefit one another," Enfield explains. "This can help bring in pollinators, maximize planting space, or increase crop productivity. For example, planting marigolds around a garden helps repel garden pests while attracting pollinators."
According to Enflield, perennial plants (including trees and shrubs) will go through a period of little or no growth, also known as dormancy. "For most plants this is during the cold winter months," she explains. "For many of these plants, a cold dormant period is required in order to flower the following season. If you live in a tropical area that doesn't experience cold temperatures, dormancy usually occurs during the dry season."
Identifiable by their exposed roots, bare-root plants are perennials or shrubs that can be dug up during dormancy and stored without any soil around the base, explains Landercasper. "They should be kept in a cool, dark place and stay relatively damp," he explains. "Then they can be transplanted outside when conditions are more conducive to growth."
If you aren't deadheading your blooms after the flowerheads are finished, then Enfield says you're not helping them reach their full potential. "Deadheading is when you remove spent flowers (or flowers that are past their prime)," she explains. "For most plants, removing the spent flowers encourages new flowers to form and grow."