Common Gardening Terms for Beginners to Know
Scarification. Deadhead. Transplant. Harden off.
These are some gardening terms that might, to a beginner gardener, sound intimidating, even perhaps a bit morbid. (Don't worry: it's just flower heads that put the "dead" in "deadhead".) Here's a quick breakdown of some terms you might encounter on the backs of seed packets or in online gardening resources, plus some videos to watch to take you from novice to master gardener in no time.
Common Gardening Terms
What Are Annual vs Perennial Plants?
This distinction classifies anticipated plant lifecycles.
Annuals complete their life cycle in just one growing season. That means they grow from seed and produce seeds for the next season in a short time period.
Biennials, as you may have guessed, take two years to complete their life cycle, assuming extreme weather doesn't end this cycle early.
Perennials either stay evergreen or keep coming back in the spring and can live for years. Tender perennials are plants that can live for years in warmer climates but need to be restarted by seed like annuals in a colder climate.
In this video, I go further into the different types and explain why I love adding biennials to my kitchen garden.
What Does Bolting Mean?
Bolting means a plant is finishing up its life cycle and focusing on producing seed to perpetuate itself. Plants typically bolt due to stress—maybe the weather is changing, the plant has run out of space to reach its full maturity, or it’s used up the nutrients in the soil.
Signs of bolting typically include a change in leaf shape, an increase in plant height, and the formation of florets at the top of the plant.
What Is Companion Planting?
Companion planting means planting different types of plants in the same area so that they can benefit one another. I don't focus on companion planting, but I do make sure to add plenty of flowers in my garden to attract pollinators, as well as chives to the corners of my beds to repel pests. Other than that, I focus more on having a wide variety of plants that like to grow under the same conditions so that they're all thriving together.
What Does Deadheading Mean?
Deadheading is an important term in flower gardening for beginners, and it just means to remove a dead or dying flower to encourage the plant to form new blooms. Regular deadheading tells the plant to focus on producing new flowers instead of seeds. This video shows you how to encourage more blooms on zinnias through deadheading.
What Are Determinate vs Indeterminate Plants?
Determinate and indeterminate plants differ in both their size/shape and their production habit.
Determinate plants grow in a more bush-like shape and produce fruit and finish all at once, while indeterminate, or vining plants, need space to spread out and continue producing fruit throughout their life cycle. A bush pea might grow 2 feet tall, for instance, while a vining pea might grow up to 6 feet tall.
Many of our common garden plants most likely began as indeterminate and were bred over the years to be more bush-like. For a farmer or large-scale grower, it makes sense to have smaller plants that are easier to maintain and harvest from all at once.
In my kitchen garden, I grow both types, but I typically prefer indeterminate plants. I love the look of a bean vine or a cherry tomato vine climbing up my arch trellises, and I prefer to harvest a little bit of fruit here and there instead of a lot of fruit all at once.
I talk more about determinate vs indeterminate tomato types in this video.
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What Does Germination Mean?
This is just a fancy word for when a seed sprouts and starts to grow. Seeds need water and the right temperature to germinate. The germination rate is the number of seeds that are likely to sprout for each type of seed, and this number decreases over time. In other words, older seeds are less likely to germinate than newer ones.
What Does It Mean to Direct Sow vs Transplant?
Direct sow means you put the seeds in the garden where you want them to grow versus starting them indoors and transplanting them to the garden later. Some plant families take a long time to mature and need to be started indoors before the threat of frost has passed, and others really dislike being moved. Plants with delicate roots like carrots and plants that grow quickly like lettuces benefit from being sown right where they will grow.
What Does GMO Mean?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism, which means the genome of the seeds has been altered in a lab. Check the seed label if avoiding GMOs is important to you. I encourage gardeners to buy local and organic, to be wary of buying plants and seeds that have been sprayed with synthetics, and to ask lots of questions about how a plant has been grown.
What Does Hardening Off Mean?
Hardening off means taking your seedlings outdoors for short and then increasingly longer periods of time to get them used to sun, wind, and rain before moving them to their permanent home in the garden. Seedlings started indoors are like fragile babies that have been extremely sheltered, and they basically need to be toughened up a bit before they can survive the great outdoors.
What Is an Heirloom Variety?
Heirloom seeds are ones that have been around for a very long time but that fell out of favor in our large-scale industrialized food system. You might only experience certain heirloom varieties by growing them yourself, but know that they might be more labor-intensive and less hardy than their hybrid cousins.
What Is Intensive Planting?
This is a way of packing in the plants and growing with the intention of harvesting more often from a variety of different vegetables, fruits, leaves, and herbs. When you build a raised bed like the ones I discuss in my book, Kitchen Garden Revival, we can afford to plant things closer together than what their tags say because the tags were written for people growing in wide rows or an in-ground vegetable patch. Intensive planting aims to get more production out of a small space and avoid having bare soil (which is never good).
Watch me intensively plant my raised-bed kitchen garden in this video.
What Is Seed Scarification?
No, this doesn't mean you scare seeds in the garden. It just means you file down the seed coating to increase the likelihood of germination. Not all seeds need to be scarified. Others, like nasturtium seeds, benefit from a little roughing up with a nail file. Check out this video to see how it's done.
What Does Self-Sow Mean?
Plants that self-sow can propagate themselves by seed. Think of an annual flower that will drop lots of seeds in your garden at the end of its life cycle. The resultant plants that pop up the next season without any help from you, the gardener, are called volunteer plants. You can see a volunteer tomato plant in the picture below.
What Does It Mean to Stratify a Seed?
Some plants need to be stratified, or given a cold treatment, before they'll germinate. You can mimic the time seeds might spend underground over the winter by putting seeds in the refrigerator. Check the seed package or google info on your seeds to see if they require any type of cold or warm treatment before sprouting.
What Is Successive Sowing?
I like to call this "never stop planting", and it's a major component of intensive planting. Instead of sowing all my seeds at once, I'll plant a couple and then come back and plant more a week or two later, to ensure I have a continuous harvest of the good stuff I want to eat. I have a video about successive, also called succession, sowing here.
What Does It Mean to Thin Plants?
You might have seen instructions to thin your plants on the back of seed packets. If you've sown too many seeds in one area and had a good germination rate, you'll have to thin, or pull up some seedlings, to give enough room and resources to the ones you keep for them to grow.
If you feel guilty pulling up something you've started growing, you can try to replant the seedlings you've pulled up elsewhere if you were gentle with the roots. If you're thinning seedlings that have edible leaves, like radishes or carrots, you can eat the seedlings you've thinned as microgreens.
What Is a Trap Crop?
A trap crop is a sacrificial plant you grow in the garden to attract pests that would otherwise eat the plants you're growing for yourself. It's like an agricultural decoy. I find the use of trap crops to be a really great way to control pests organically.
Learning to Garden for Beginners
The ability to successfully grow things you want to eat is not something you're born with. Gardening is a skill that can be learned and practiced.
Gardenary exists to be a platform where beginner and intermediate gardeners can come to find the resources they need to grow. I hope the videos and articles I featured here help you feel like gardening can become an ordinary thing in your life!
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