Garden Jargon For Beginners

 Does walking into a garden centre sometimes feel like you have crossed over into a foreign land with a strange language all its own?  As garden centre employees we sometimes forget how overwhelming it can be to step into our store the first time as a new gardener.  Take, for example, the use of Latin in horticulture.  The horticultural language used by ‘plant people’ is based on Latin which fell out of use centuries ago and is technically referred to as a ‘dead’ language.  Because it is a dead language no new words have been created or changed through the years. 

Common names of plants vary from region to region and country to country.  One plant may have ten or more common names throughout the world.


Latin is used for creating scientific names which are consistent in any language.  Latin plant names are used as a means of classifying or identifying specific plants.  There is only one scientific or botanical name for a specific plant.  No matter where you go in the world that plant will have only one Latin name. 

For Example:  The common names for a Mayday tree are hackberry, hagberry, bird cherry and Mayday.   The Latin name for a Mayday tree is Prunus padus var. commutata.  Using Latin names in the gardening world avoids a lot of confusion.  It is used by all areas of the industry- plant propagators, growers, seed companies and garden centres alike.   It puts us all on the same page.  If you are looking for a specific plant, find its Latin name on the web before coming to the garden centre.

Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Canada

As a new gardener one should know the Hardiness Zone of their city or town.  A hardiness zone “refers to a geographic area that encompasses a range of climatic conditions relevant to a plant’s growth and survival” (Para Space Land Services).  In North America there are 13 zones in total with the higher numbers (9-13) indicating warmer regions while lower numbers (1-3) indicate zones that experience temperatures below freezing.  In Canada there are no areas warm enough to go beyond zone 9.  Victoria B.C. is considered a zone 9 while Saskatoon, Sk. is a 3.  Many plants have a zone in which they are best suited.  Look for the suggested zone on each plant tag.  In Saskatoon, garden centre buyers focus on buying zone 3 plants in perennials, trees, shrubs, and vines.    

Which leads us into the next gardening terms that one should know when shopping in your local garden centre; annuals, perennials, and biennials.

 Annual Snapdragon

In spring Floral Acres has a huge section of benches (tables) that are devoted to annual plants.  An Annual is a plant that completes its life cycle in one growing season.  Annuals are sold in packs, 4-inch pots, 6 inch pots, 8,10 and 12 inch hanging baskets and patio planters.  A pack usually contains four or six small plants and they come in black plastic trays called flats, making them easier to move and handle. 

An example of 4 in. diameter and 6 in. diameter plant pots.

When we talk about four inch and six-inch pots, we are referring to the pot opening diameter, not the size of the plant.  Knowing the zone requirements for annual plants is not required as they are just around for one growing season and would not survive a winter here in Saskatchewan.  Examples of annual plants include petunias, snapdragons, impatiens, and marigolds.

Perennials Perennials have their own department or section in the greenhouse as well.  A perennial is a plant that survives our zone 3 climate from season to season.  The top growth will die back closer to winter, but the root zone survives winter after winter.  Perennials have a limited flowering period, some blooming for one month, while others bloom for three to four months.  There is or should be a plant tag in every pot which tells you what zone the plant can be grown in and a generous amount of care and plant size information. 

Biennial A biennial is a plant that completes its life cycle in two growing seasons.  In the first season they will produce roots, stems, and leaves.  In the second season, they will produce flowers, fruits, and seeds, then die. Examples of biennial plants include carrots, beets, parsley, hollyhocks, and violas.



I mentioned Plant Tags (Labels) in a previous paragraph.   Each pot in a garden centre should have a plant tag.  The tags are full of information: A photo of the plant or plant’s flower, common name, scientific or Latin name, the mature height and spread, hardiness zone, sun exposure, water needs, suggested spacing between each plant in a garden bed, and bloom time.  Keep your plant tags and if you have some favorite plants after the season is over, bring their tags with you next year to the garden centre.


Hardening - Off - This is a term used to describe slowing exposing a plant to cooler temperatures.  Annuals, perennials, and vegetables lead quite a cushy lifestyle being raised in a greenhouse.  They have not had to deal with the “outside” world, which is usually cooler, windier, and less forgiving than a greenhouse environment.  Once you get your plants home in the spring begin exposing them to the outside world a few hours a day in a semi-shady, sheltered location.  Gradually increase their time spent outside each day for about a week and slowly expose them to brighter light conditions if they are to be in sun.    This especially applies to tomatoes who love a sunny location. They will experience leaf burn if you place them in the hot afternoon sun right away.

Daylilies are considered a drought tolerant perennial plant once established. 

Drought Tolerant  -  A plant that can survive or thrive in low water conditions.  I would like the words ‘once established’ behind this descriptor be included on plant tags.  Drought tolerant does not mean you plant your plant in a dry, sunny spot and forget it.  Plants must establish themselves first, get a root system going and produce some upper growth.  This means being watered in the first growing season to encourage that process along.  Once established, they can tolerate some drought if need be. 

I hope to make Garden Centre Jargon for Beginners a monthly part of the Floral Acres blog section. 

Let me know what you think in the comments below!  Next month I’ll cover terms related to seeds, starting seeds, soil, and soil amendments.  Until then, stay safe and stay warm. 

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