Garden Lingo 101

Garden Lingo 101

It’s that time of year! Let’s talk Garden Lingo. This last couple years has been somewhat eye opening for so many people. Lots of people are deciding it’s time to relearn the lost art of the family garden. An idea that seems so simple, get some seeds and toss them in the dirt, quickly becomes overwhelming as one starts to read seed packets and learn about the adventure they have undertaken. So many unfamiliar words. I have a big, bad case of Spring Fever, and it feels like all I can focus on is daydreaming about warmer days and garden joys, so I thought today would be a good day to highlight some of the most common words that you will need to learn to become a proficient gardener.

First. You need to know the difference between an annual and a perennial. This is just very basic knowledge that you will need to garden. It takes a minute to get them straight sometimes, but before you know it, they will be permanent information that you have stored in your long term memory.

An annual is a plant that will need to be replanted each year. These include most of your typical garden fruits and vegetables, some of the herbs, and some flowers. Annuals need to be replanted annually and will generally be a one season plant. You can, however, save seeds from that plant, to replant the following year. Some annuals self seed prolifically.

A perennial is a plant that will come back year after year. You want to make sure to plant perennials in a place that you are ok with them growing, and quite possibly, spreading, for many years. I have experienced this on more than one occasion, but the one that really stands out to me is catnip. I planted it at our last home. It somehow came with me when I moved and I find it popping up everywhere. It must have joined us in the move by way of a container plant. Many of the herbs and flowers you may be interested in growing will be perennials. There are a few vegetables that fall into the perennial category, like Asparagus, Artichoke, and Rhubarb. Perennials live perpetually (to varying extents).

And then we have biennials. You don’t hear that term as often, but it is a plant that takes two years to complete it’s life cycle. Some examples are Shallots, Hollyhocks, Black Eyed Susans, and many onion varieties.


Now that you know the difference between annuals and perennials, lets talk about the difference between organic and inorganic plants.

Many people believe that organic means pesticide and herbicide free. This is not actually accurate. Organic produce is often treated with organic pest controls. What organic means, is that there is a requirement one must meet of eliminating artificial chemicals from the environment in which the crop grows. Natural pesticides are better than chemical ones, right? Yes. Organic is better. One word of caution. Some organic controls contain gluten. For example wheat bran is often a carrier of organic pesticides. If you are dealing with a gluten intolerance of any kind, you will want to be careful with organic vegetables. It’s a double edged sword in that case. It’s the ones that absorb the most chemicals, that are also hardest to remove gluten from. Think Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Brussels Sprouts. If you are looking at organic controls that are commercially manufactured for your gardening needs, you may want to check the ingredients for gluten.

An inorganic plant is just the opposite. One that has been grown with synthetic chemical controls. It is my humble opinion that these chemical controls are one of the many factors that are causing so much illness in our population. You won’t find “inorganic” labels on anything. These are just the typical vegetables and plants we buy off the shelves at the store. If it’s not labeled organic, odds are good it’s not organic. Most of the commercially available food is mass produced to meet the needs of enormous numbers of people. That means it is grown with chemical controls to maximize output and minimize loss. Which brings us to heirlooms.

Heirlooms are not modified, old world plants that have been around for many generations. The seeds will result in plants that resemble the parent plant. This is what our food is supposed to look like. So many varieties and colors that most of us have never heard of. I am talking purple tomatoes, white watermelon and white alpine strawberries, blue and red beans, brown cucumbers, rainbow carrots, chocolate peppers, and varieties of melons and squash most people have never even heard of, much less seen. I highly recommend a look at some heirloom seeds companies. Baker Creek is one of my favorite suppliers, and their descriptions are fun to just sit and read for hours and hours. I can lose myself on their website the way some people get sucked into social media for hours on end.

Our mass produced food system has been dumbed down and manipulated to make it incredibly efficient to feed large amounts of people. We have chosen one or two varieties that produce well, and then we have used science to manipulate genetics to create built in pest controls and other desirable traits. In some ways, it’s wonderful that we have the ability to feed so many people on such a grand scale, but at what cost?

Plants that have been genetically modified are called GMO’s. Genetically modified plants have been altered genetically to be more efficient. Usually in terms of pest and disease resistance. It is my humble opinion that this often alters other aspects of the plant. Maybe just slightly, but I believe taste and texture are often not on par with their heirloom counterparts.

Hybrids are a result of cross pollination between two plants and the seeds produced by hybrids are not great for saving, as they will either not fruit, or they will take on the qualities of just one of the parents plants. 

Let’s talk about how much plants can tolerate. All plants have cold and heat temperature ranges that they will tolerate. If it gets too hot or cold, they will stop producing or die. To determine when to plant your seedlings, you want to know your USDA hardiness growing zone. To find your zone, you can search with your zip code for the most accurate results. Once you know your zone, you will be able to figure out general dates that it is safe to plant outside (last frost date) and when you need to plan to harvest or cover by in Fall (first frost date). When reading seed packets, you will notice that some need to be planted indoors, a certain number of weeks before planting outside. In these days of technology, I just go to my last frost date in my calendar, and then count back in two week increments. I set reminders for 2, 4, 6, and 8 weeks. These will be my seed planting dates.

Another reason we need to understand heat and cold tolerances to garden efficiently, is because just like there is a minimum temperature that plants will tolerate, there is also a maximum temperature in which they will grow. Many plants hate the heat, and will bolt (suddenly go to seed), or just simply quit producing if temperatures get too high during the day. Knowing this information will help you plan what to plant before last frost. I myself plant most leafy greens, onions, shallots, peas and brassicas, the minute I can move the soil. I found waiting for last frost, they do terribly. Planting those items very early in the season gave me excellent results. You can always use a search engine to find out what the lowest and highest temperature your plants will tolerate is.

You will also often use the words hardy and tender. A hardy plant is one that withstands harsh weather, and just like it sounds, a tender plant does not handle harsh conditions well.

With these few simple pieces of information, you should have no trouble understanding the basics of getting a garden started. There is so much to learn when it comes to the garden, that I don’t think we ever really gain all the knowledge. Every year I have a new problem, pest, or pet plant that I need more information about. It’s overwhelming at first, but it quickly becomes second nature.

What other gardening questions can I answer for you? Are you as ready to get your hands in the dirt as I am? I still have another month before I can even start my indoor seedlings. Did you plan any new varieties this year? What are you most excited to see come up? I kept it simple this year, but it will be my first time growing Kohlrabi, and I am very excited for that!