Growing Together: Terms every gardener should know

Gardening columnist Don Kinzler shares several vocabulary words that gardeners with which gardeners ought to familiarize themselves. "The language spoken in gardening isn’t normal English," he writes.

"Self-cleaning" mean old, withered flowers drop off neatly by themselves, such as these begonias.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

When I was about five years old, my Mom took me out into the garden with her, I suppose to keep an eye on me. I found it so fascinating, I’ve never left. I soon learned, though, that the language spoken in gardening isn’t normal English.

Mom said she was planting squash in a hill, but the dirt looked pretty flat to me. And when she said Grandma had taken a slip, I thought she’d tripped over one of her many scatter rugs.

I soon learned this strange language would take some getting used to. Someday I’ll write a book to interpret these phrases, many of which make little sense at first glance.

Following are examples of terms frequently used in gardening.

  • “Pinch” means using the thumb and forefinger to remove tip growth, encouraging the plant to branch out. I guarantee the plant won’t say “ouch.”
  • “Setting out” doesn’t mean you’re embarking on a journey, it means transplanting plants into the soil outdoors, as in setting out tomato plants in late May.
  • “Heavy soil” has nothing to do with trying to lift a bucket of it, it refers to soil with a high proportion of clay particles, making it sticky and slippery when wet, and hard-packed when dry.
  • “Blight” is an all-purpose term for a disease that causes spots, blemishes or discoloration of leaves, stems, fruit or flowers.
  • “Rest period” isn’t what’s needed following an afternoon of pulling weeds. It’s the period of dormancy, often in bulbs, required before active growth resumes.
  • A “weed” is any plant growing where we don’t want it. Wheat is a weed if it’s growing in my strawberry bed. All plant species are part of nature’s ecosystem somewhere.
  • A “pesticide” is an umbrella term for any product used to kill “pests,” including insects (insecticide), weeds (herbicide), fungal diseases (fungicide) or rodents (rodenticide).
  • A “slip” is an older term for a “cutting,” which is a portion of a plant used to induce rooting to form a new plant.
A "slip" is a plant part used to start another plant.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum


  • “Forcing” a plant might sound unkind, but it’s simply coaxing it to grow or bloom outside its normal season, such as forcing a pot of tulips.
  • “Media” is the mix in which plants are growing, not radio, television or Facebook.
  • “Direct seeding” is planting seeds into a final location, as opposed to sowing in a seed tray and transplanting the resulting seedlings.
  • “Potbound” refers to a potted plant whose roots are encircling and tightly filling the soil ball.  
  • If a plant doesn’t like “wet feet,” it won’t grow well in a location that is frequently too wet and poorly drained.
  • A “flat” isn’t a tire with a nail hole. It’s a greenhouse tray in which packs or pots of plants are grown, carried or sold.
  • “Self-cleaning” isn’t limited to ovens. The term means a flowering plant that sheds old blossoms neatly without requiring hand removal.
  • “Deadheading” is the removal of withered flowers to prevent energy from being wasted on seed formation. Deadheading encourages continued flowering on many plant types.
  • “Spent blossoms” are flowers that have withered and should be removed by deadheading.
  • “Cross” doesn’t mean you’re irritable. It means pollen is transferred from male flower parts to female flower parts.
  • If seeds “come true,” the plant produces seeds that will grow into offspring with the same characteristics as the parent. Many hybrids don’t produce seeds that come true.
  • An “eye” is the bud on the surface of a tuber or enlarged root. Potatoes and peonies both have eyes.
  • “Hardy” is often short for “winter hardy,” meaning a plant can reliably survive the local winter conditions year after year.
  • “Leggy” refers to tall and spindly growth. Seedlings can become leggy if light is insufficient. Shrubs can become leggy if they need rejuvenation.
  • The “crown” of a plant is the point at which above-ground stems meet the below ground roots. The crown is usually at soil level.
  • Planting in a “hill” means planting garden seeds in a small group, not on a raised mound. Squash, pumpkin, cucumber and melons are often planted with four or five seeds to a “hill.”

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at
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