A Gardener’s Glossary of Basic Terms

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
A Gardener’s Glossary of Basic Terms

To garden effectively, there are terms you need to know.

Although no garden glossary is complete, below are a few essentials alphabetized for convenience.

Aeration - The loosening of soil or other matter by various means allowing air to pass freely through it.

Acidic Soil - Soil with a pH reading below 7.0 is considered acidic while soil measuring above 7.0 pH is called alkaline. Dryer soils tend to be more alkaline. Use a soil test to determine pH among other factors.

Amendment - Organic material added to soil to improve it.


Annual - A plant which completes its entire growth cycle from seed to bloom and again to seed in one year’s time.

Biennial - A plant which takes two seasons to complete its life cycle, flowering and producing seed in the second year.

Blackspot - A rose disease in which the leaves have dark spots, sometimes with a yellow ring, caused by a fungus and spread through moisture. Leaves will eventually turn yellow and then brown falling to the ground.

Blossom End Rot - A disorder of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant caused by a lack of calcium. Uneven watering and drought are also factors.

Bolt - When a cold-weather plant, like spinach or kale, is stressed by heat it flowers and sets seed if left in place.

Botanical name - The scientific name of a plant, also sometimes called the Latin name, although not all botanical names are in Latin. The proper name of plants through a system standardized by Carl Linnaeus, where the first half of the name, capitalized and in italics, is the plant’s genus. The species name is also written in italics, but not capitalized. Cultivar names, if there are any, are in single quotes.

Chlorosis - A lack of chlorophyll in plants causing them to have pale, green, yellow or even whitish foliage. This is not to be confused with plants hybridized to look as though they have this deficiency.


Cloche - A glass or clear plastic cover meant to protect plants from cold temperatures or animals. Cloches should be removed when the temperature warms so that the plant is not overheated and can get air circulation.

Companion Planting - Growing one or more plants together because they perform well in the same space. This term is often referred to in connection with plants that enhance each other’s growing conditions like garlic repelling insects from roses, for example.

Compost - Organic humus created by layering green and brown materials and allowing them to decompose. Compost is great for the garden. It helps maintain soil moisture and temperature while also balancing soil organisms to prevent disease and improve fertility.

Cultivar - A plant variety or strain produced in cultivation through breeding or selection.

Cutworm - Worm-like larvae of any variety of moth which curls up into a C shape and cuts plants off at soil level. Cutworms are often green, brown or yellow with stripes. Various methods are used to foil these creatures when new plants are set out into the garden.

Deadhead - To remove a part of a plant which has bloomed so that the plant will re-bloom. The term also refers to the fans of The Grateful Dead, a rock group, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Focal Point - When designing a garden it’s important to include a focal point, which has three main functions: Strategically placed, a focal point can control the line of sight, helping the eye know where to look in the garden; whether it leads you down a pathway or helps you to notice a particular view. If there’s no focal point, the viewer is left to visually navigate the garden on their own, creating a feeling of uncertainty. Focal points can also help invoke a certain mood in the garden, whether it’s whimsical, cheery, restful or serene. Focal points can also help distract the eye from something ‘less than desirable’ (such as a chimney, play structure, air conditioning unit, etc.) Many things can be act as a focal point in your garden: plants (especially if the shape, size or color is drastically different from its surroundings), color from painted elements/structures in a garden or artistic elements (statues, structures, arbors, etc).

Photo 1 - Focal Point

Formal vs. Informal - Most people consider formal design to be linear with laser-like symmetry, perhaps divided into quadrants and edged with tightly clipped hedges. Things tend to match in a formal garden, with plants falling within a specific color palette and placed in specific locations. This type of garden is best for disciplined gardener. Informal gardens, however, tend to have lines that seem to curve and flow with wild abandon. If there’s symmetry in the garden, it’s subtle at best. A wide plant palette is used, and when many of the plants seem to look as if they’ve naturally re-seeded where they are. Plants are generally unclipped and left to their natural shape. To have an informal garden that doesn’t look chaotic is more difficult to achieve than you’d think!

Photo 5 - Formal garden

Genius of the Place - Quite often designers will refer to the ‘genius of the place’ ‘the spirit of the place’ or ‘sense of terroir’. While it might sound a bit esoteric, it really isn’t. Living within a cork’s throw of Napa Valley, I’m very familiar with the concept of terroir when applied to wine, which is simply defined as recognizing the individual characteristics of a vineyard’s climate, soil and topography that directly influence the subtle nuances of the wine. When designers use this phrase, it refers to a garden’s specific region and the environmental factors that should be considered when designing a garden. For example, consider where you live (ie: mountains, desert or the city) and proudly incorporate what makes your locale special into your garden. When choosing plants, consider using those that are native to your area to help emphasize the local flavor of your region.

Photo 4 - Genius of the Place

Genus - A categorical ranking of a plant below its family and above its species. Plants within a genus generally exhibit similar characteristics and their names are capitalized and italicized.

Heirloom Plant - Time-tested, open-pollinated plants passed down from more than one generation of gardeners often in a particular region. They will often have more vigor and disease resistance for that region.

Mulch - Shredded leaves, compost, chopped bark or any other material which will decay over time, but is spread beneath plants to improve the soil, moderate soil temperature, and retain moisture. Rubber “mulch” does not count.

Native Plant - Open-pollinated plant varieties which are endemic or naturalized in a particular are over time.


Perennial - A plant which lives and grows for several consecutive years. Some plants are referred to as hardy perennials because they are tolerant of freezes. Of course, how hardy a plant is determined by where the gardener lives. A short-lived perennial is one, like Gaillardia sp., which overwinters in my part of the world for a few years, but then dies. A hardy perennial in many areas of the U.S. would be one like the peonies in the photo above.

Proportion - In garden design, proportion (or scale) is an important concept to consider; when done right, everything is harmonious and when ignored, everything seems ‘off’. A proportional garden is one where all components seamlessly fit into the whole of the landscape. For example, if you have a large and expansive estate, larger sized plants, structures and art will fit right in. Conversely, if your garden consists of a small courtyard or balcony, plants with delicate foliage, smaller art and structures with fine details will look best

Photo 3-Proportionally large

Rhythm and Line - Whether your garden is geometric in nature, or flows with a curving and winding pattern, rhythm and line refers to the sense of motion that is created through the use of various landscaping elements. Pathways and the shape of a garden bed are key elements to creating rhythm; meandering pathways denote a leisurely pace while straight lines are intentionally direct. The shape of structures and artwork strategically placed within a garden can also help to further emphasize the garden’s pace.

Photo 2- Flowing rhythm

Secateurs or Hand Pruners - In Europe, hand pruners are called secateurs. Sound much more romantic don’t they?

Sow - To plant seed. Direct Sow means to plant seeds outdoors directly into the soil in which they will grow.

Thinning - The process of removing some seedlings in order to give others room to grow and produce.

Top dress - The process of amending the soil by adding a thin layer of fertilizer like manure to the surface of the soil.