Garden terms explained: A quick guide

Garden "bones," the paths and structures - Gwendolyn Stansbury/Flickr 

Garden "bones," the paths and structures - Gwendolyn Stansbury/Flickr 

It’s a new gardening season, and some of you out there are entirely new at this, digging in for the first time. Like every other hobby or sport, gardening has its fair share of terminology and jargon that the uninitiated can find quite arcane.

I know I’m stretching the limits of credulity when someone who has asked me a garden question knits their brows and looks at me quizzically while I’m rattling on about “sweet” soil, sheet mulch and “fast” drainage. For the benefit of newbies, I thought it might be time to stop and explain some terms:

* Bed and border — Not another way to say overnight accommodations with breakfast. A garden bed is a patch of tilled ground with plants in it. A border is nearly the same thing, but often abuts a boundary line, house or garage. “Border” often teams up with its contents as in perennial border or shrub border. Areas with a number of trees, on the other hand, might be woods but could also be a copse or spinney. Never a bed.

* Garden “bones” — This has nothing to do with what the dog dragged in and everything to do with permanent paths, arbors, hedges and stone walls that give the garden structure. People under the influence of British gardening shows love this term. With a trust fund and an ancestral estate, you can have garden bones, too.

* Drip line — At certain snooty nightclubs, the queue of those rejected for admittance. In the garden, an imaginary circle drawn on the ground under the outermost branches of a tree or shrub. Fertilizer and the like are best distributed between the trunk and the drip line, an area sometimes referred to as the drip zone.

* Fast drainage — What your wallet experiences during the spring planting season. Also, soil that is sufficiently porous that rain or irrigation water disappears below the surface very quickly rather than creating a dismal swamp. Fast drainage is commonly found in sandy soil and on slopes.

* Hardy — If this suggests convivial mingling, you’re betraying yourself (anyway, it’s party hearty). Hardiness refers to a plant’s ability to survive the winter where you live. A hardiness zone, as defined by the USDA’s inscrutable color-coded maps, describes a swatch of the country with similar minimum temperatures. Imagining you can overwinter a plant from warmer hardiness zones is just the kind of wishful thinking that makes plant suppliers rich.

* Heeling in — Digging your heels in is what you do when your spouse suggests paving over the yard. Heeling in plants means to lay them temporarily in a shallow trench and cover their roots with soil until you have time to plant them in a permanent spot. The downside to heeling in is that months later, when you realize you haven't followed through, your plant is committed to growing sideways.

Mulch, on a garden border               Preen

Mulch, on a garden border               Preen

* Layering — First the undershirt, then the turtleneck, then the fleece jacket. That's layering to accommodate the vagaries of weather. Layering in the plant kingdom is a magical propagation technique whereby you peg down an amenable branch, cover it with soil and come back a year or two later to discover it has sprouted roots. It then can be severed from the plant and lead an independent life without ever asking to move back home.

* Leader — Not your president or mine. Not a king or colonel. In horticulture, it's the dominant and tallest branch on a tree. Leaders are sometimes attacked by insects or disease. That's when you get to choose another leader, prop up its regime with wire and spit, and hope it takes over from its weakened predecessor — all without pesky elections.

* Mulch — 1. A verb meaning to cover the soil. 2. A noun referring to the material used. An organic mulch is made of something previously alive, like bark, wood chips, straw or pine needles. An inorganic mulch never breathed or ate, and might include gravel, sheets of plastic or discarded indoor-outdoor carpeting.

* Naturalized — Achieving citizenship has nothing to do with it. This is when plants escape the strict regimen of the gardener and grow willy-nilly wherever they please while the gardener takes credit for their artful placement.

* Deadheading and pinching back — Deadheading was promoted by Jerry Garcia in a hugely popular rock band. In garden-speak, it means to remove spent flowers and their potential seed pods to prompt a plant to blossom again. Pinching back, or removing the growing tip of a plant to make it bushy, was invented in Italy, where men always have fingers at the ready.

* Rain shadow — Original title of a song by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Also, a place in the garden where the rain don't fall, related to the place where the sun don't shine. Locations in the shadow of a structure or fence, or spots directly under the eaves get little rain in the average shower and so are said to be in the rain shadow.

* Sweet and sour soil — Not a new item on the Chinese food take-out menu. Rather, a measure of how alkaline ("sweet") or acid ("sour") your soil may be on the pH scale, a science nerd's term the origin of which is lost in the mists of time. East of the Mississippi, your soil is likely acidic and you add lime to neutralize it. Should it be too sweet, add aluminum sulfate and stand back while it carps and complains bitterly and at length.