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Gardening Terms Explained
by Frann Leach
Looking for something else?
A list of garden terms with a descriptive explanation
If you find this page useful, please let others know.
- Acid soil is soil with a pH of less than 7. Weeds commonly found on acid soil include: Dock, thistle, daisy, plantain, creeping buttercup, heather, rhododendron, azalea and camellia.
- Alkaline soil is soil with a pH of more than 7. Weeds commonly found on alkaline soils include: Clover, campion, beech. Acid-loving plants may show yellow patches on the leaves.
- Annual crops produce a harvest in the first year of planting (although they may actually be biennial or perennial plants), after which they are disposed of.
- A block of ground no more than 120cm (4') across, and of any length, though for practicality, this is usually kept at no more than 250cm (8'). Growing crops in beds has a number of advantages over the older row method, including:
- it allows closer spacing, because there is no need to allow space for walking between the rows
- the ground in the bed is never compacted by walking on it, so the soil becomes easier to work
- fertiliser and other treatments are not wasted on areas where nothing is growing
- easy access to all sides of the crop
- A biennial plant is one which grows to maturity, flowers, produces fruit and dies in a two year period. Many crop plants are biennials, but are harvested in their first year and not allowed to reach maturity, e.g. carrots, leeks.
- Blanching means excluding light from all or part of a plant during growth for a period of up to 2 weeks, resulting in a loss of the green colouring (chlorophyll) and bitterness. It is used for rhubarb, chicory, endive, seakale and dandelion, amongst other plants.
- A plant is said to have turned blind when the growing point has died. In vegetables with a single growing point (such as cauliflowers and squash) this results in a failure of production: ie. no crop.
- There are two possible meanings:
- A square or rectangular area of ground which is dealt with as a piece.
- A block of soil or other material, about 1" square, used as a module for growing delicate seedlings to reduce transplant disturbance.
- dried blood
- Always wear gloves when using fertilisers derived from animal products. A fast acting organic fertiliser for supplying a quick boost to growth. Nutrient content: nitrogen 12-14%.
- blood fish and bone
- Always wear gloves when using fertilisers derived from animal products. A popular organic fertiliser that contains all three major nutrients with the potash and phosphate being released slowly and the nitrogen fairly fast. Regular applications will maintain nutrient levels. Nutrient content: nitrogen 3.5%, phosphorus 8%, potassium 0.5%.
- This term, and also the term "run to seed" means to prematurely produce flowers and seeds. Usually applied to a leaf crop such as lettuce, spinach etc. Normally, the crop is available for the whole of its season, but when it bolts, it produces a flower stalk, and the rest of the plant loses quality, flavour, and of course form in cases where that matters. The best way to avoid bolting in susceptible crops is to grow a bolt-resistant variety. In addition, or instead, light shade is useful, or even growing as an intercrop between taller crops such as peas.
- bone meal
- Always wear gloves when using fertilisers derived from animal products. Buy only steamed bone meal. Made from animal bones ground to the consistency of breadcrumbs. Often used to give a boost to root growth when planting in autumn or winter. Slow release. Nutrient content: nitrogen 3%, phosphorus 22%.
- A important trace element. Deficiency may occur on peaty soils with a high pH. Organic gardeners may have difficulty replenishing this. Probably the best idea is to keep your plants healthy with regular doses of seaweed feed.
- catch crop
- A crop which grows quickly and makes use of space which is not available to grow a longer-season crop. A catch crop may be grown in the period after one crop matures and the next goes into the bed, or in the space between plants which grow to a large size, but do not do so very quickly, so that the space in between plants would otherwise be left empty. Use of a catch crop not only makes more efficient use of the space available, but may also have other advantages, such as protecting the soil from erosion by weather, keeping it cool, and helping to reduce weeds.
- Chitting means pre-germination of seed. The normal method is to put the seed onto a thick layer of moistened absorbent material, such as kitchen towel. Another layer is laid over the top so that the seed is surrounded by moisture, and the whole pad kept moist until the seeds start to sprout, when they are said to have 'chitted'.
- A cloche is a glass or plastic cover used to cover crops to keep them from the weather. You can use them to warm the soil before sowing or transplanting. To do this, put them out a week or two before you actually want to plant or sow. There are a wide variety of cloche types available, large and small. Horticultural fleece is sometimes called a 'floating cloche' because it has a similar effect of warming the area it covers.
- When an organic gardener refers to Comfrey, he is not talking about the ornamental cultivar, but a special strain or Russian Comfrey, Bocking 14, which is a natural source of potassium. By cutting the comfrey leaves 3 or 4 times a year and compressing them in a suitable lidded container, the extracted liquid can be made into excellent fertiliser for tomatoes and other fruiting plants.
- A cordon is a plant grown as a single main stem. The fruiting spurs come off this. It is frequently used for top fruit, as well as gooseberries and currants.
- The crown of a plant (such as a strawberry, or a celeriac root) is the part where the growth of stems takes place. In most cases, planting should be carried out so as to ensure that this remains above the soil surface, or the entire plant may die.Asparagus crowns, however, are planted beneath the soil when the asparagus bed is made.
- Cultivated variety. These are usually bred specially for some particular trait, such as flavour, colour, shape, resistance to certain pests or diseases.
- damping off
- A soil borne disease which tends to occur mainly in very damp conditions and can completely kill off a seedling crop. Best avoided by making sure that crops sown under cover are given adequate ventilation and pricked out as soon as possible, and only sowing outdoors when conditions are suitable (i.e. avoiding periods when the ground remains wet constantly for days on end). Using sterile compost for indoor sowings and a seedling-strength mixture of seaweed fertiliser may also help.
- direct sown
- This just means to sow the seed in the final position where it is required. Some crops do not take kindly to being transplanted, so are best sown in situ, which is another way of saying the same thing. The main crops which are affected are root crops, such as carrots, parsnips and salsify.
- A way of increasing stocks of a plant by cutting or breaking it into two or more pieces, each of which contains at least one strong root and stem, and replanting them individually.
- earthing up
- This is a term used mainly for potatoes, but you may see it used for other crops. It means to pile more earth around the bottom of the stem, so that a small mound is formed with the plant sticking out of the top. Some plants respond well to this treatment, others don't like it at all.
- This is the name given to a carrot or other root vegetable that splits into two or more, producing fang-like results. It is usually caused by sowing seed in soil which was manured too recently, or in very heavy or stony soil.
- Some plants will require extra nutrition partway through the growing season. This may occur, for example, where the plants are grown on poor soil or in containers. The inorganic gardener has a number of options available to him. Organic gardeners are restricted in their choices, but this is no real handicap. If it is known that a particular crop will require extra feeding, a sprinkling of blood, fish and bone can be made around the roots and lightly hoed in early in the season. Alternatively, or in addition, the use of seaweed fertiliser as a foliar feed will give a much needed boost to leafy vegetables and legumes. For fruiting types, such as squash, tomatoes and so on, a better option would be comfrey liquid, which may be made or purchased in concentrated form for dilution. It is very unlikely that well grown organic crops will require anything further in the way of feeding, although a potassium deficiency may be dealt with quickly by the addition of some freshly prepared (cooled) wood ash, again lightly hoed in around the roots.
- fish, blood and bone
- see blood, fish and bone
- Horticultural fleece is a non-woven material which is used to protect crops from cold weather. It is sometimes called a floating cloche. It needs to be pegged down or held down in some other way, or the wind will blow it away.
- fluid sowing, jelly sowing
- A method of assisting rapid germination of seed in poor conditions. In periods of very dry weather, it keeps moisture close to the seed, and it may also help when the weather is colder than would normally be required for germination. Basically, fluid sowing means to mix the seed with a thick fluid (often wallpaper paste) or jelly and then sowing this. Sometimes, for seeds like parsnip which are poor germinators, the seed is chitted before mixing with the fluid.
- foliar feeding
- This is the name given to a liquid feed which is sprayed onto the leaves of the crop. It has been found that the nutrients are actually absorbed by the leaves directly, so more of the feed is used, reducing loss caused by runoff when applying liquid fertiliser directly to the soil. It is often used for seaweed fertiliser, using a half-strength mixture.
- Forcing is the term used to describe the production of blanched young shoots from previously grown root stocks. Witloof chicory and seakale are examples of vegetables used for forcing.
- frost dates
- The first and last frost dates are noted by gardeners over the years, and used as reference points. The less hardy varieties will be sown or transplanted after the latest First Frost Date in Spring, or before the earliest Last Frost Date in Winter. Approximate dates can be used, based on the zone in which the gardener is living, but by keeping records, more accuracy can be attained in the long term, often extending the season, or avoiding losses.
- frost pocket
- A frost pocket is a small area of ground where frost occurs at low temperatures, even though the surrounding ground remains clear of frost. They often occur at the base of constructions such as walls, sheds, and so on.
- growing point
- Some plants, such as shrubs and trees, have more than one growing point, whereas others, such as vines and many trailing plants, have only one. The growing point is the point at which growth takes place. In all plants except grasses, this is at the tip. If you cut off the growing point of some plants, you can induce branching (for example in apples, capsicums and tomatoes), whereas in others you will prevent any further growth (cauliflowers, trailing squash).
- hardening off
- Preparing plants grown indoors for transplanting outdoors. They need to be gradual acclimatised to the conditions. To do this takes 7-10 days. On the first day, the plants are placed outdoors in a sheltered spot for no more than 2 hours, then brought back indoors. Increase this gradually every day, 4 hours on the second, 6 hours on the third, and so on. If the weather is bad (cold and rainy, windy, etc), it is ok to miss a day, or even two, then carry on where you left off, increasing the time a couple of hours a day. When you find you are just putting them out in the morning and bringing them in at night, they are ready to plant out. Do this as soon as you can, but leave them out until you do. By this stage, they should be able to survive even quite severe weather.
- heeling in
- If the weather is unsuitable for planting woody plants, or sometimes for other reasons, it may be necessary to heel in plants temporarily until they can be moved. To do this, simply insert the spade into the ground and lever to one side to make a slit trench. Lie the plant down and put the roots into the trench, carefully spreading them out if there is a big root ball, then pull the soil back over, firming well.
- high temperature dormancy
- Lettuce and some other vegetables suffer from high temperature dormancy. What this means is that at temperatures above a certain level (for lettuce this is 77ªF/25ªC), seeds will not germinate. To overcome this:
º Water after sowing to reduce soil temperature º Use a white reflector to cover the seedbed until the following day, eg. Newspaper º Sow between 2 and 4pm, when the soil is starting to cool down
- hoof and horn
- Always wear gloves when using fertilisers derived from animal products. Made from the hoofs and horns of cattle, ground finely and sterilised before sale. Because it is a slow release product, it needs to be used at least 2 weeks before the intended result. Nutrient content: 13% nitrogen.
- Organic matter. The 'magic ingredient' which, when present in the soil, makes it more workable, adds to the moisture retention of lighter soils and assists plants to absorb nutrients. Average humus content ranges from 1 to 6 percent. Organically managed soil will always have higher levels of humus than those dealt with mainly by the use of chemicals.
- in situ
- In the same place, or, in the place where it is to grow/is growing. see also direct sown
- intersow, intercrop
- Intersowing means to sow one crop, usually a quick growing type, between the rows of another. It's also used for quick growing seeds like radishes, used as row markers for a slow germinating crop like parsnips. Intercropping is another word for the same thing, but is more often used for intersowing two crops with growing periods of roughly the same length. see also catch crop
- The leader is the growing point of the main stem of the plant, usually a cordon.
- Magnesium is essential for growth of leaves and roots. You are only likely to come up against a deficiency if the land you are using is very light and has not been manured for some years. Another possible cause is too much chalk or lime in the soil, which interferes with absorption.
- An important trace element. Deficiency is not likely to occur unless you are gardening on soil with a high pH. On soils with a very low pH, manganese becomes so readily available that it can become toxic.
- Mildew is a fungal disease. There are two types: downy mildew and powdery mildew. If the plants are overcrowded and/or short of water, they are much more likely to suffer from diseases in general, and mildew in particular. You should be able to avoid this by ensuring the crop gets sufficient air and water. However, if it strikes, you can try feeding with a half-strength solution of seaweed fertiliser to give the plants a boost. In general, the damage is not great, although yields will be reduced, but you will probably find the crop that is produced is still usable.
- A posh word for containers, often used for individual cells in divided trays, but sometimes for any pot or container.
- Molybdenum is a trace element which asists in the take-up of nitrogen. Deficiency in tomatoes and lettuce can lead to chlorosis in older leaves, necrosis and infolding of the leaves. In brassicas, leaves develop whiptail (which describes the shape of the leaves).
- mosaic virus
- A serious disease that produces a distinctive, rather attractive, variegated pattern on the leaves and hard dark green misshapen fruits with bright yellow blotches. It is spread by touch, and by aphids. So if you suspect a plant, and you touch it, wash your hands really thoroughly before you touch anything else. Although this disease mainly affects cucurbits (squash, cucumbers and melons), other plants can be carriers, so keep the area around squash and related plants clear of weeds, do your best to minimise aphid infestations, and burn, do not compost any suspect plants. There are resistant varieties.
- A mulch is a layer of material placed over the surface of the soil, particularly over the roots of the crop. Examples include: chipped bark, crushed cocoa shells, grass clippings (not from a lawn where weed killer has been used!), black plastic... The idea of the mulch is to keep moisture in the soil and cut down on the amount of weeding required. When used as a verb, 'to mulch' means to apply a mulch to the soil around a crop.
- Neutral soil has a pH of 7. It is soil that is neither acid nor alkaline.
- One of the three main nutrients required by all plants. The other two are potassium (potash) and phosphorus. Without a supply of each of these in a form available to the plant, it will not grow and will probably die. All three are naturally present in the soil, but an excess of certain chemicals may 'lock them up' so that they become unavailable. Adding plenty of organic matter will usually help to make the nutrients easier for plants to take up, although the process is not instantaneous. Organic fertilisers and manures in general are not fast acting. However, a good fast source of nitrogen is dried blood, which can be mixed with water and watered onto the surface of the soil.
- A crop which is sown in the Autumn for harvest the following Spring is called an over-wintered crop.
- pea sticks
- Twiggy sticks, usually kept from hedge and shrub pruning for use as plant supports, particularly for peas and bush beans.
- Perennials produce crops every year. Usually the first year after planting there is little or no harvest. Perennial crops may last from 3 to 30 years depending on the type. In general, the larger the plant, the longer its productive life. However, all perennial crops require special attention not required by annuals, e.g. pruning.
- 'The pH scale is a means of expressing the degree of acidity or alkalinity. pH values less than 7 are acid and the lower the figure, the greater the acidity. Values greater than 7 indicate increasing alkalinity and pH 7 is neutral. For ideal growing conditions, most plants require a soil of about pH 6.5, which is slightly acidic. At this point most of the plant nutrients are available for uptake by the roots.' Principles of Horticulture You can get soil testing kits which will let you discover the pH of your soil, or you can have a test done professionally by sending off soil samples.
- pinching out, nipping out
- This term means to remove the growing point on a stem, usually by just nipping off the top couple of leaves with the thumb and forefinger. It is used to promote bushy growth, and also, on broad beans, to discourage black bean aphids.
- Potassium is essential for a plant's metabolism. If there is a deficiency, a comfrey liquid feed is the fastest remedy available to the organic gardener.
- A predator is a creature that preys on others for its food. In gardening, it is usually taken to mean a creature that preys on pests. One of the most obvious predators is the common ladybird, and its larvae, both of which eat aphids.
- pricking out
- Seeds sown indoors are usually sown fairly thickly in seedtrays of low-nutrient compost. Once the seedlings come up, they can quickly become overcrowded. To avoid a check in growth, they are usually transplanted almost immediately at a spacing of about 2.5-5cm (1-2") in another seedtray filled with compost with more nutrients, and moved soon after to a cooler and less humid situation, to avoid damping off. This process is called pricking out.
- rock phosphate
- Rock phosphate is an extremely slow release source of phosporus, one of the three main nutrients. It should be finely ground to enhance its effectiveness, and acts as a long-term reserve in the soil.
- rock potash
- Potassium is often short in organic fertilisers so this product, ground to the consistency of sand, is invaluable. It doesn't dissolve easily, so it is slow-acting, but it lasts a long time in the soil. Use it if a potassium deficiency is diagnosed. Nutrient content: potassium 10.5%.
- seaweed extract
- The best concentrated liquid fertiliser readily available for the organic gardener. It contains an amazing range of trace minerals and nutrients to protect against deficiencies and generally strengthen your crops. I recommend SM3, available from Suffolk Herbs. Follow the instructions given on the bottle carefully. Use a measuring jug, and don't add more than the recommended amount to the water. A half-strength solution makes a good foliar feed.
- Crops which are self-pollinating do not require another plant of the same type in order to produce fruit. For example, french beans are self-pollinating, but only certain varieties of runner bean, apple and pear have this useful trait.
- This term is often used about runner beans and other seed-bearing crops, such as apples. When fruit appears on a plant, it is referred to as setting. For fruit to set, it needs to be pollinated (unless it is a self-pollinating variety), usually by insects, although corn, for example is wind-pollinated. Some fruit requires three different contributors to the mix, for example, the so-called Triploid varieties of apple, although most only require a single partner (which may need to be of a different variety in the case of tree fruit). It is believed that runner beans also require a cool, moist root run to aid pollination.
- Almost all crop plants require full sun to grow well. An obvious exception is mushrooms. There are also a few which will tolerate semi-shade (dappled shade or shade for part of the day). If you have a shadey plot, you will be limited to various types of fungus, rhubarb, and perhaps some blanched crops, like celery and dandelion.
- station sowing
- The name given to the practice of sowing several seeds together in 'stations' at the correct final spacing required, later to be thinned to a single plant. This practice is surprisingly recent, but saves a large number of seeds, as can be imagined, particularly with crops that are widely spaced and/or do not transplant successfully.
- straight edge
- This can be as simple as a metre-long bit of 50mmx100mm or more elaborate, with markings every 10cm and lacquered to protect it from the weather. You can even screw a small handle near each end, or a bigger one in the middle, to make it easier to use.
- Radishes, spring onions, lettuces and similar crops that do not keep well or are required in large quantities over a long period are often grown successionally. What this means is that not all the seed is sown at the same time. For example, radishes might be sown every week to supply fresh radishes at the right stage throughout the season. As well as producing a crop at the peak of perfection, the area of ground needed for production is much reduced.
- A sucker is the term given to a stem which arises from the underground part of the plant, but is not part of the main plant. In grafted plants, it is usually from the stock (eg. in roses, the bramble). This extra stem may be more vigorous, and in any case uses nutrients that gardeners would prefer to be available for the main plant. Suckers are therefore usually removed as soon as they are seen.
- top fruit
- A term meaning fruit crops which grow on trees.