35 gardening terms everyone should know

Aerating, broadcasting, and cold frames ... the ABCs of plant care and then some.

A garden with green plants surrounded by fallen leaves.
A thin layer of fallen leaves in a garden bed on Long Island, N.Y. They will decompose over the winter to provide nourishment for existing and future plantings. Adobe Stock

When thumbing through seed catalogs or plant-care manuals, you’re likely to encounter at least some descriptions that elude you. So here’s a cheat sheet to help navigate the offerings — and maybe impress your gardening friends.

Aerate Poking holes into compacted soil with a garden fork or aeration machine to facilitate the flow of oxygen to plant roots.

Amendment Organic matter such as compost or manure added to soil to improve its fertility, drainage, water retention, or structure.

Annual A plant that completes its life cycle in one year, regardless of climate.

Bare root Plants, typically roses, trees, and shrubs, that are dug out of the ground and sold without soil or containers.


Biennial A plant that completes its life cycle in two years.

Bolting Premature flowering of crops like lettuce and beets that renders them bitter or otherwise lessens their quality.

Botanical name The name assigned to a plant using the Latin-based terminology developed by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in the 1700s. Using a plant’s botanical name (also referred to as its “scientific name”) eliminates the risk of confusing it with other plants.

Broadcast Spreading seeds over a large area, either by hand or machine, instead of planting in rows.

Cloche A traditionally bell-shaped item placed over plants to protect them from insect or frost damage.

Cold frame An enclosure placed around plants to create a greenhouse effect and extend the growing season.

Common name A nickname used in certain circles or geographical regions to describe a plant. Because different plants can share a common name — and one plant can have several — their use can confuse gardeners.

Companion planting Grouping specific plants together based on the benefits they provide one another. Those benefits can include attracting pollinators, deterring pests, or serving as a living trellis.

Deadheading The practice of removing spent — or dead — flowers from a plant to encourage repeat blooming, prevent self-sowing, or simply keep plants looking tidy.


Deciduous Plants, trees, or shrubs that lose their leaves in autumn or winter.

Direct sow Planting seeds directly into the garden rather than starting them in containers indoors and transplanting them outdoors later.

Ephemeral A plant that emerges and fades relatively quickly, often in spring.

Evergreen Plants, trees, or shrubs that do not lose their leaves in autumn or winter but remain green year-round.

Foliar feeding Applying liquid fertilizer directly to leaves rather than soil.

Germination The initial growth of a sprout from a seed.

Harden off The process of gradually acclimating a plant to a different, usually harsher, climate, such as outdoors from indoors, in order to increase its resiliency.

Heirloom A plant in its original form that has not been hybridized or cross-pollinated with other species or varieties. Heirloom seeds reliably produce plants that “grow true” or hold the same characteristics as the plants from which they were collected.

Hill The practice of mounding soil up against new aboveground growth, as is done with potato plants.

Hybrid A plant variety that has been deliberately cultivated in a controlled setting, usually by cross-pollinating, in order to acquire new, desirable characteristics such as bloom color, disease resistance, fragrance, size, hardiness, taste, or shelf life, among others.


Naturalize The practice of scattering seeds or bulbs in such a way that they either appear to have spread naturally or, in areas such as the lawn, where they are allowed to spread without boundaries.

Organic matter Non-synthetic material, such as decomposed plants and animals, manure, compost, and leaf mold, used to improve the fertility, structure, and other attributes of soil.

Perennial Plants with a life cycle that is longer than two years. Perennials may die back to the ground over winter and return year after year or remain evergreen throughout their lifespan.

pH In gardening, the pH scale determines the acidity or alkalinity of soil, compost, and water. The lower the reading, the more acidic the soil; the higher the reading, the more alkaline. A reading of 7.0 is considered neutral.

Pinching The practice of using your thumb and index finger to remove small shoots and stems, usually to encourage the growth of side shoots.

Scarification Scratching, cutting, nicking, or otherwise lightly damaging the hard surface of a seed to facilitate germination.

Self-seeding A term used to describe plants that spread by dropping seeds onto the soil around them. Those seeds germinate, root, and grow into more plants. Also called “self-sowing.”

Side dress To sprinkle a line of granular, powdered, or pelleted fertilizer (or other amendments) alongside a row of plants rather than incorporate it into the soil or planting hole.

Stratification The process of exposing seeds or bulbs to cold temperatures, typically in a refrigerator or freezer, to emulate the outdoor winter conditions necessary for successful spring germination.


Top dress To apply fertilizer or amendments like compost or manure directly to the soil above and around plants.

Wet feet Wet roots, usually resulting from poorly draining or oversaturated soil.

Xeriscaping The use of drought-tolerant plants in the landscape for water-conservation purposes. Also called “water-wise gardening.”


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