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Don’t let garden jargon get you down

If you ever have a conversation with me about gardening, one of the things you’ll notice is that I don’t use a lot of the “gardening jargon”, and by that, I mean that you will never hear me use Latin names for plants, or talk about cotyledon leaves and many other terms I hear in conversations. However, just to be very clear, it’s not a bad thing that anyone would use this language, because after all the very purpose of these terms is to make things easily understood and to stop confusion.

But… not all gardeners understand these terms and some may even be put off groups and communities where they are used frequently because it makes them feel isolated or worse like they somehow aren’t real gardeners. Honestly, it’s happened to me.

12 years on since my first gardening experience and yes, I’ve learned what a lot of these terms mean, but I still don’t know the Latin names for plants and I don’t know what an awful lot of the gardening jargon means. But it doesn’t stop me from gardening, and if it comes up in conversation, I no longer shy away from saying, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” But at the same time, as a teacher, I know the importance of language and inclusion, so let’s unpick some of the words you’ll hear in gardening circles and hopefully help give you a little bounce in your step as you head off to check for those cotyledon leaves. See what I did there?

About your plants

I want to cover this one first because it was one of the areas I found more intimidating when I was new, it’s simply 3 words you’ll hear when people talk about the individual plants in their lower beds and that’s annual, biennial and perennial.

Annual – is the description of a plant that lives its entire life in one year. Meaning it grows from seed to mature plant, flowers, sets seed and then dies all within that 12-month period. Annual plants are often those you hear gardeners talking about sowing each year so that they can have fresh displays of new plants. For instance, those who follow my gardening adventures know that I often grow sunflowers from seed each year.

Now you also get plants that go through their entire life cycle over 2 years, these are what are referred to as biennials. These plants usually spend the first year of their life developing a strong root system to then support the plant the following year as it blooms. These plants will not flower in the first year.

In my garden, the most famous biennial plants are my foxgloves. I sow these in August each year and the plant grows and developed for the rest of that year, over winter and then the following year will produce its flowers before dying. Foxgloves are actually the reason I learned about biennial plants.

That leaves the 3rd plant type, perennials. These are plants that live for more than two years, in other words, the ones that grace your garden year after year. MY big flower bed at the fence is full of these, as are my colourful planters. Things like my Anemonies, Ranunculus and Astilbe.

So annual, biennial and perennial.


You’ll hear this most often in conversations with veggie growers. It simply means the plant is trying to flower. That sounds great but, with your vegetables, you don’t want them to flower as it can change the flavour of some crops or stop them from growing. A good example of this is onions, if they bolt, they stop putting their energy into producing that onion bulb you want or with some lettuces, when they bolt, it makes them taste bitter.


The very first little leaves that emerge from the seed. Most folk I’ve encountered refer to these as the baby leaves, but you will come across some of the older (read more experienced) gardeners who will use the term cotyledon to talk about these. And since we’re on the subject, this can actually be split into dicotyledon and monocotyledon. Simply, some plants produce two leaves and others only a single leaf… Think of your tomato plants and how they get two baby leaves, but an onion will produce just the one. But that leads on nicely to the next term.

True leaves

Usually used to describe the first leaves that grow after the cotyledon leaves, which are usually different to the cotyledon leaves, so recognisable.

Pinching out

This is simply the process of using your thumb and forefinger to remove the growing tips or side shoots of plants. I do this with my dahlias to encourage them to grow more side shoots rather than grow tall. However, with tomatoes, I pinch the side shoots because I don’t want a tomato plant to grow lots of stems and instead focus on that one stem and lots of fruit.


Suckers are shoots that can develop on the roots of some plants and can grow into a whole new plant. It’s really common with things like raspberries and blackberries. However, you’ll commonly hear this term used with tomatoes, though when we talk about pinching out the suckers. It’s not technically true, as its side shoots we pinch on tomatoes but it’s commonly used so has become normal language.

Gardening activities

Aerobic or Anaerobic

Used to describe the way organic matter breaks down with oxygen so you’ll hear it in reference to composting quite often. The most common way of composting, with a pile in the garden, is aerobic composting, in other words, the little bacteria that break down the organic matter into compost, use oxygen. The opposite is called anaerobic. Think of bokashi composting, this is anaerobic. It simply means that the type of bacteria in the process don’t like oxygen. It’s good to know the difference as anaerobic bacteria can cause the slimy smelly compost pile problems a lot of us try to avoid.

Your gardening and garden practices


You might right also refer to this as Hardening Off. This is when you take plants out of the safe, protected space you’ve been growing them in for short periods to get the used to the outdoors.

Usually, you do this in spring before planting out plants that have been growing indoors or in the greenhouse. The idea is to gradually get them used to the light, temperatures and wind over a couple of weeks before moving them permanently.

Beneficial insect

Insects, such as ladybirds, hoverflies and wasps, that control pests so you don’t need to, or bees and other pollinators.

Companion planting

Vegetables that are planted together to attract insects or deter pests, such as growing onions with carrots to deter carrot fly, sweet peas with runner beans to attract bees. There is another term, trap crop, this is the opposite. This is where you deliberately grow a plant which attracts pests in the hope that it will leave your other plants alone.

You may also hear about Intercropping, this is a similar practice of growing plants together but focuses more on the use of space to maximise harvests. Think of growing short quick growing plants in between those taller slow growing plants.


Basically, this is plant food. Either organic or inorganic and with experienced gardeners is most often in the form of compost or manure. Organic material added to soil to improve its fertility. However, it can also be the liquid feed used for many plants to directly provide them with the nutrients they need to thrive.


This is essentially the organic matter in the soil, usually a result of decayed leaves, manure and compost, which as been eaten and recycled by organisms in the soil like worms.


Mulch can be organic or inorganic. Usually, a thick layer of compost, straw, bark or leaf mould, would be organic. But you can also use inorganic things like grit or membrane. You place a layer on the surface of the soil to help reduce weeds and conserve moisture.

Planting out

This is just the act of transplanting seedlings grown on in pots usually indoors or in the greenhouse, to their final spot in the garden.

Potting on

When you move your seedlings and small plants into a new, larger container to encourage growth.

Pricking out

This is the act of carefully digging out those tiny seedlings from pots or trays before moving them into new pots, to give them more room after their first true leaves appear.

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