Garden Terms You Need to Know

Annual—An annual is a plant that grows and blooms in one season, then dies with the frost. Yes, you’ll have to plant it again next year—but it makes up for it by usually blooming the entire summer, all the way to frost.

Acidic—When applied to soil, the soil has a pH between 0 and 7. This is important because some plants (azaleas, rhododendrons, etc.) prefer acidic soil. Soil pH can also determine the color of the flowers of certain hydrangeas.

Alkaline—When “alkaline” applies to the soil, the soil has a pH between 7 and 14. Most plants prefer “neutral” soil (pH of 7). Lilacs, clematis, and a few other plants prefer slightly alkaline soil.

Beneficial Insect—Insects that keep down other insects by eating their eggs or larvae or the insect itself—or insects that pollinate—bees, butterflies, ladybugs, hoverflies, praying mantises, and dragonflies. If we plant things that the beneficial insects like, they’ll hang around and help take care of the bad guys for us. We should also plant things to attract the beneficial insects that pollinate.

Biennial—A biennial is a plant that goes through its life cycle in two years. They usually grow the first year, bloom, and set seed the second. It often dies or deteriorates at the end of the second year. Many biennials will reseed. Hollyhocks, Sweet William, and pansies are biennials.

Bolting—Bolting is when a plant goes straight to blooming and dying—usually because it’s too warm. Many cool-season veggies are known for this—broccoli, cabbage, kale, spinach, etc. don’t like warm weather, so as it gets warmer in the spring, they will suddenly produce a flower spike and stop growing.

Botanical name—This is the “official” name of the plant—the “scientific” or Latin name—Ficus, for example. There are many different cultivars of Ficus—benjamina, elastica, lyrata—the “common” names for the above are Weeping Fig, Rubber Tree, and Fiddleleaf Fig. When looking for a specific plant, it can help us to have the “Latin” or Botanical name as common names can vary from region to region.

Cool Season Plant—Sometimes called Cole Crops (although this is correctly applied only to cabbage family members). A cool-season plant grows well during cooler weather. Many cool-season vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, spinach, turnips, beets, and lettuce. Hot weather often makes them “bolt” or go to seed and die. There are also cool-season annuals—flowers that bloom best in spring and fall rather than in the heat of summer.

Deadheading—Deadheading is simply removing flowers once they have begun to deteriorate. Many plants—particularly annuals—will bloom again if you remove dead blossoms.

Deciduous—A deciduous plant drops its leaves in the fall and grows again in the spring—maple trees, oaks, willows, lilacs, etc., are all deciduous. Evergreen is a plant that does not lose its leaves all at once; rather, it loses a few here and there over the year.

Determinate/Indeterminate—These terms refer to tomatoes. A tomato that grows to a certain height—usually two to four feet, then blooms is Determinate. It’s commonly referred to as a “bush” tomato. They produce a big crop all at once, which is particularly good for canning. They do NOT produce all summer, however. An Indeterminate tomato will grow and produce all summer—most tomatoes are Indeterminate. Indeterminate tomatoes can get 8 feet or taller.

Ephemeral—An Ephemeral is a short-lived perennial that dies soon after blooming—Virginia Bluebells, Bleeding Hearts, Rue Anemones, etc.

Evergreen—A plant that retains most leaves (or needles), only shedding a few at a time—after the next season’s leaves form. Most azaleas, spruces, pines, etc., are evergreens.

Exposure—Full Sun, Part-Sun, Shade

  • Full Sun—this is the rays of the sun shining directly on the plant six or more hours a day. Most all your veggies, trees, etc., need full sun. Indoors, this means no blinds, no sheer curtains, and no overhang.
  • Part-Sun—roughly the equivalent of half a day of direct sun. Lots of dappled sunlight might qualify.
  • Shade—there is shade, and there is shade—dappled sun under a light shade tree is bright shade. The shade on the north side of the house that gets no sun ever is dense shade.  Some plants can tolerate that—and plants that don’t. This is important to know when buying a plant.

First Frost Date—Many seed packages will tell you to plant by your first or last frost date. So when is that? Our FIRST expected frost date here in the Richmond area is October 22nd. That does not mean that we won’t get a frost before that. It simply means that we usually don’t get a frost before that. To be safe, I check the weather report every night starting October 1st.

Hardening off—Hardening off refers to gradually getting indoor plants or tender new seedlings used to being outdoors. If you put new seedlings that have been started indoors outside in direct all-day sun, you’ll burn them. Same with an indoor plant. Start them out under a tree in the dappled sun before moving to full sun, for example. As they’re gradually getting used to the outdoor environment, check on night temperatures and bring them in at night, if necessary.

Last Frost Date—Our last expected frost date here is April 15th. Take this one with a grain of salt, however! (Remember this past May? I don’t usually put tender plants outside until the first of May. However, the last couple of years, our weather has been so wonky I kept them in pots a little longer so I could bring them in, if necessary—and I’m glad I did! We had a frost around May 3!)

Native—A native is a plant that has evolved in a specific environment without human intervention. A “naturalized” plant was introduced by humans but has adapted quickly to its new environment—dandelions, Japanese honeysuckle, and wild violets, for example. Many of the plants we grow are NOT native but introduced—Tiger Lilies, Bearded Iris, Geraniums, and many others—even our lawn grasses are not native—fall fescues are native to Europe. Bermuda grass is native to South Africa.

NPK—NPK stands for Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium—all necessary nutrients for plants to grow. These are the three numbers on fertilizer bags (10-10-10 etc.). Nitrogen promotes foliage growth; Phosphorus promotes blooming and root development; Potassium is necessary for overall vigor. When you’re fertilizing, use the correct formulation for your plant. If in doubt, ask us!

Perennial—A perennial is a plant that dies down to the ground in the winter and then grows and blooms again the following year. Most do not bloom all summer, however, but have a set blooming time of a few weeks.

Top Dress—Adding a thin layer of compost, manure, etc., to existing lawns or garden beds to improve soil quality without digging up what’s already there. The key word here is “thin.”

USDA Hardiness Zone—The USDA has divided different regions into “zones” based on their average minimum winter temperature. It’s essential to know the hardiness zone for your area when choosing outdoor trees and shrubs. Zones range from zone 1 (the coldest) to zone 13 (at or near the equator). We are winter-hardiness zone 7 here in Virginia. It’s important to note that a plant hardy to zone 7 may still suffer damage if we have an unusually cold winter.

Vernalization—Some living things must go through a cold period before growing and blooming. Most spring-blooming bulbs, for example, will only bloom if they have gone through winter first.

All Your Questions Answered

If you have any questions about soil, plant, seed, bulb selection, or other gardening questions, stop by the Great Big Greenhouse for expert advice. We’re here to ensure you have a garden you love and are proud of.

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