A Beginner's Guide to Basic Garden Lingo

By Amanda Pollard, Houzz

Would you like to know the difference between annuals and perennials? Or perhaps you’re wondering what deadheading is? Check out our rundown of essential gardening terms that you’ve probably heard but may not have understood.

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Chris Snook, original photo on Houzz

Annuals, biennials and perennials. Some plants spring up once and never again, and others bloom over and over. You can tell what each plant will do by identifying whether it’s an annual, a biennial or a perennial. So what’s the difference?

An annual is a plant that performs its whole life cycle within one year. It germinates, flowers and dies — that’s it. A perennial, in contrast, is a plant that lives for more than two years.



Biennials (like many foxgloves, shown here) are a little more complicated — they stick around for two years but usually don’t flower until the second year. The first year, they typically have only foliage.

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Barner Walker Ltd - Landscape Architects, original photo on Houzz

Self-seeding. Since annuals last only one year and biennials two, you may think that planting them is a waste of time. Rest assured that some annuals are self-seeders — they scatter seeds around the garden, which then grow without fuss. The great thing is that the new plants will continue this cycle.

Besides annual and biennial self-seeders, there are some perennials that perform this useful task too. Purple-blooming Verbena bonariensis, pictured, is a good example.

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StuartBarr Construction Design Renovation, original photo on Houzz



Acidic and alkaline soil. Water and sunshine aren’t the only things your plants need to grow — they also require nutrients, which they can get from the soil. Whether or not your plants get the right amount and type of nutrients will depend on the pH value of your soil. You can test this easily by using a kit from your local garden center, and the type of soil you have will determine what you should and shouldn’t plant.

A pH value below 7 signifies an acidic soil, while a pH value above 7 indicates an alkaline soil. If the value is exactly 7, your soil is neutral. Some plants like acidic soil, while others prefer alkaline, so pay attention to this when you’re designing your garden.

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Theresa Fine, original photo on Houzz

Taking cuttings. Want to make some plants for free? One of the easiest ways to do this is by taking cuttings. To learn how to take cuttings for a particular plant, it’s best to find a tutorial online.

A general guideline to get you started is to first cut off a length of stem about 3 to 6 inches long. Remove the lower leaves so that you have a length of stem to plant in soil. If you like, you can dip this part in a rooting hormone, which will help it to take root. Pot up your stem in a moist potting mix that includes sand, perlite or vermiculite, then wrap it loosely in plastic or cover it with a cloche. It usually takes a month or two for the plant to be ready to plant outside.

Related: Plant Stands to Hold New Cuttings



Deadheading. An easy way to keep plants looking good and to encourage new blooms is to deadhead them. It’s a quick process that simply involves removing faded or dead flowers to direct energy back into the plant to make new flowers. It can usually be done by using your finger and thumb to snap off the dead bloom. If the stem is tough, you can use scissors or shears to cut it. The Royal Horticultural Society advises removing the flower’s stalk as well for tidiness.

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Nicolock Paving Stones and Retaining Walls, original photo on Houzz

Staking. Have you ever seen a gorgeous flower rise up in a bed and then sadly flop over as soon as the rain falls? Tall plants (including vining tomatoes, shown here) can’t always stay upright without help, and this is where staking comes in. The term simply refers to a method of supporting long, top-heavy plants.

The way you stake will depend on your budget, style and expertise. There are nifty curved wire frames available that you can easily poke into the soil around your plants or, at the other extreme, you can construct a complex grid from branches and twine. Whichever method you use, it’s a pretty crucial job if you want to avoid snapped stems.

Hardening off. If you’ve been growing seedlings indoors or in a greenhouse, it will be difficult for them to suddenly face the elements outside. They’ll need a period of adjustment, or hardening off — two to three weeks (or longer if the initial growing conditions were very warm) where the plants are gradually exposed to harsher conditions to get them used to growing outdoors.

There are a few ways you can do this, including increasing the period of time your plant stays outside in a sheltered spot from a few hours to a day to several days. Alternatively, place your plants in a cold frame, leaving the top exposed for increased time spans. Or you can withhold water from the young plants in a controlled way, which is essentially the same as leaving them out in the elements.

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Tracey Parker Landscape Design Ltd, original photo on Houzz

Pinching. For a plant that’s full and bushy, it’s a good idea to encourage it to grow multiple stems rather than just one long one. You can do this by using a technique called pinching, where you prune the main stem back to just above a couple of leaf nodes (the joints in a stem where a leaf starts to grow). Use your thumb and finger to pinch the tender stem off as close to the leaf nodes as possible, which should force it to grow a couple of new stems and result in a fuller plant.

Related: Expert Advice for Beginner Gardeners




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