BONNIE’S GARDEN – Garden Terms You Need to Know

Whether you’re a brand new gardener or you’ve gardened for many years, knowing the garden terms below will help you be a better gardener and get superior results. Why? Because knowing these terms helps you understand how to create the best growing conditions. Knowing these terms also helps you ask better questions when talking with Great Big Greenhouse associates.

21 Important Garden Terms


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.


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


When alkaline applies to the soil, it means the soil has a pH of between 7 and 14. Most plants prefer “neutral” soil (pH of 7). But there are some plants that prefer slightly alkaline soil.

Beneficial Insect

Insects that either keep down other insects by eating their eggs, larvae or the insect itself (ladybugs, hoverflies, praying mantises)—or insects that pollinate. If we plant things that beneficial insects like, they’ll hang around and help take care of the bad guys for us.


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 reseed. Hollyhocks, sweet Williams, and pansies are biennials.


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, etc. don’t like warm weather so as it gets warmer in the spring will suddenly bloom and stop growing.

Botanical name

This is the Scientific or Latin name of the plant—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 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 the cabbage family). A cool-season plant grows well during cool weather. Many are vegetables—broccoli, kale, cabbage, spinach, lettuce. Hot weather makes them “bolt” or go to seed and die. There are cool-season annuals as well—flowers that bloom best in spring and fall.


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


A deciduous plant drops its leaves in the fall and grows again in the spring—maple trees, oaks, willows, 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 whole year.


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


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


Full Sun, Part-Sun, Shade—Full Sun—The rays of the sun shining directly on the plant six or more hours a day. Most all your veggies, most trees, etc. need Full Sun—indoors, this means no blinds, no sheer curtains, and no overhang. Part-Sun—roughly the equivalent of a half-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—that’s dense shade. There are plants that 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 in accordance with 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 we won’t get a frost before that. It simply means we don’t usually get a frost before that.

Hardening off

Hardening off refers to getting indoor plants or tender new seedlings used to being outdoors—gradually. 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 with dappled sun before moving to full sun. As they’re gradually getting used to the outdoor environment, be sure to 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 this year, our weather was so wonky I kept them in a little longer—and I’m glad I did! Several years ago we had a hard freeze April 28th, too.


A native is a plant that has evolved in an environment without human intervention. A “naturalized” plant is one that was introduced by humans but has adapted easily to its new environment—dandelions, Japanese honeysuckle, wild violets, etc. Many plants we grow are NOT native but introduced—even our lawn grasses are not native—tall fescues are native to Europe, Bermuda grass native to South Africa.


Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium—all necessary nutrients for plants. 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, be sure to use the right formulation for your plant. If in doubt, ask us!


A perennial is a plant that dies down to the ground in the winter then will grow and bloom again the next year. Most do not bloom all summer but have a set blooming time of a few weeks.

USDA Hardiness Zone

The USDA has divided different regions into “zones” based on their minimum winter temperature. It’s important 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.


Some living things need to 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.

There you have them! Twenty-two terms that – once learned – will enhance your garden knowledge and help lead to a better garden. Remember, our plant experts at the Great Big Greenhouse are happy to answer all of your garden questions. Stop by and get expert help, or simply let us know how much you love gardening.

To read more posts from Bonnie, visit our blog

4 thoughts on “BONNIE’S GARDEN – Garden Terms You Need to Know”

  1. Joan, I’m so glad you found this helpful. Any time you come across a gardening term you’re not sure about, we’re here to help.

  2. I am the moderator of a gardening service project at Oakcrest School in Vienna, VA. This is going to be a handout that new “gardenistas” will receive when they sign up to participate in this service project.
    Any other beginner-style info would be appreciated!

    Holly Salls

  3. Holly,

    I have some hand-outs that I use for some of the seminars that I do. Give me a call, I’ll tell you what I have and email any you are interested in.

Comments are closed.

Pin It on Pinterest