Basic Garden Terms Explained

We all remember being beginning gardeners, not knowing the difference between a perennial and a peapod. Like any hobby, it helps to know basic garden terms.

Our May/June issue of Northern Gardener includes a special section for beginning gardeners called Dig In, where this article first appeared. You can get Northern Gardener on many newsstands or subscribe. Our sponsors—Bachman’s, Otten Bros., and The Mustard Seed—will have extra copies of the insert, too.


  • Annual – a plant that completes its life cycle in a year or less. Annuals require sowing every year and their flowers usually bloom profusely throughout the summer.

    hanging baskets filled with pink and purple flowers

    Annuals, like the calibrachoa in these baskets, grow, bloom and die in one season. (P.S. These flowers grew in a display garden. They are amazing!)

  • Perennial – a plant that lives two or more years outdoors in the ground. The foliage usually dies back each winter and the plant sends up new shoots from the same root system in spring.

    pink peony bloom

    Peonies are a classic Minnesota perennial. They come back year after year and can keep growing for up to 100 years. This one is called ‘Salmon Etched’ peony.

  • Full sun – at least six (and preferably eight) hours of sunlight per day.
  • Part sun/part shade – three to six hours of sunlight per day.
  • Full shade – less than four hours of direct sunlight per day.
  • Hardiness – the degree to which a plant can withstand cold temperatures.
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zonesspecific geographic areas based on the historical average lowest winter temperature. Perennials are rated using the USDA zone system to indicate in which areas they can survive. If you’re growing in the Upper Midwest, chances are you’re gardening in zone 3, 4 or 5.
  • Deadhead – to cut spent flowers off a plant and encourage the plant to bloom again.
  • Compost – organic matter often made up of decomposed plant material and added to soil to replenish nutrients.
  • Amend – to improve soil quality and structure by adding organic matter, such as compost.
  • Direct sow – to plant seeds directly in their permanent growing space.
  • Mulch – a layer of material (we recommend wood chips, pine bark, leaves, straw
    bee on allium

    Many plants attract pollinators, including allium.

    or grass clippings) covering exposed soil to minimize weeds, reduce erosion, moderate soil temperature and retain moisture.

  • Native – a plant type that has been present in a specific geographic area for hundreds or thousands of years, that is well-suited to the climate, supports native wildlife and requires fewer resources to thrive.
  • Pollinators – bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other wildlife that transfer pollen.

There are many more garden terms to know, but these will get you started on your first trip to the nursery.

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