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Garden Glossary: Gardening Terms Beginners Should Know

Here are some common gardening terms to get you started

garden glossary

Here are some common gardening terms you may run across as you explore garden centers and plan your garden. Understanding what each term means will help you to pick the best plants for your goals. For example, gardeners will often use annuals in container designs or in hanging baskets due to their short life cycle. With good care, perennials will come back every year, and so should be accounted for in the overall design of your garden. Learn designations describing plant behaviors, forms, and more below.


Plant life cycles

Plants are categorized by their expected life cycle. Some plants grow and mature from year to year, while others mature during the course of one season and then die off.

Annuals are plants that complete their entire life cycle in one season. In other words, you plant one in the spring, enjoy it all summer, and then it dies. Annuals are popular for their exuberant color and low cost. Think petunias (Petunia spp. and cvs.).

Petunia spp. and cvs.
Petunia spp. and cvs.
Perennials are plants that come back year after year. A perennial is generally a good buy, even if it is a little more expensive than an annual, because you only have to buy it once—as long as you don’t kill it. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 3–11) are common perennials.

Rudbeckia spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 3–11
Rudbeckia spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 3–11
Biennials live for only two years. They grow leaves the first year and add flowers the second year, and so require a bit of advanced planning. After the second season, a biennial usually dies. One great biennial with exciting first-year foliage and second-year flowers is silver sage (Salvia argentea, Zones 5–8). biennial (Salvia argentea, Zones 5–8)

Salvia argentea, Zones 5–8

Plant behavior types


Native plants. Although you’ll frequently see this term pop up in gardening textbooks, websites, and magazines, there is not a firm consensus on what the definition of “native plant” actually is. Some say it’s a population of plants within a defined geographic area that exists there without being introduced by humans. Others define it as a species of plant within a particular ecosystem that is not a result of an introduction and that historically occurred, or currently occurs, in that ecosystem. Things get a little dicey when it comes to determining what constitutes an “introduction” and what exactly is meant by “historically occurred.” The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, offers this succinct definition: a plant that occurs naturally in the place where it evolved.

Amsonia tabernaemontana ‘Storm Cloud’, Zones 3–9
Aggressive plants have the potential to take over a section of your garden and make your life miserable. They may seed all over or send tenacious vines in every direction, making them more of a weed than an ornamental plant. Golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, Zones 4–8) is often considered to be one of those plant thugs.

Lysimachia nummularia* ‘Aurea’, Zones 4–8
Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, Zones 4–8
Invasive plants are plants gone wild. They escape the garden and threaten the habitats of native plants. A plant may be an invasive species in one area of the country and benign in another. English ivy (Hedera helix and cvs., Zones 5–11) is a good example; it is a terror in the northwestern United States but is well behaved in other parts of the country.

Hedera helix
Hedera helix and cvs., Zones 5–11

Plant forms

The terms below can help you plan your garden’s structure. Some plants, such as trees and shrubs, keep their “framework” throughout the season. Some of these plants can help to provide winter interest by lending beautiful bark and elegant forms to the garden during the cold season. Herbaceous plants die at the end of the growing season and will either grow back in spring (perennial) or will need to be regrown from seed or repurchased and planted (annual).

Woody plants, typically trees or shrubs, form a permanent structural framework that supports their foliage. An oak tree (Quercus spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9) is woody.

Quercus spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9
Quercus spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9
Herbaceous plants, generally annuals or perennials, grow from the ground up every spring and die back to the ground in fall or winter. Their structural framework is fleshy and temporary. An impatiens (Impatiens walleriana cvs., annual) is herbaceous.

mpatiens walleriana cvs., annual
Impatiens walleriana cvs., annual

Leaf markings

Some plants have interesting foliage features, such as variegation. These plants are often prized for adding variety to the garden and breaking up the “sea of green.”

Variegated plants flaunt more than one color on their leaves. A variegated hosta (Hosta spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), like ‘Pandora’s Box’ (pictured), may have green leaves with white streaks.

Hosta spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9
Hosta ‘Pandora’s Box’, Zones 3–9

Types of trees and shrubs

Also known as “woodies,” trees and shrubs are considered nonherbaceous perennials. Some woodies are evergreen, and go throughout the cool season, whereas deciduous woodies lose their leaves in the fall and winter and then revive in the spring.

Evergreen plants keep their leaves through the winter. A pine tree (Pinus spp. and cvs., Zones 3–10) is a common example. Evergreens make Christmas trees a reality. Not all evergreens have needles, however. Peren­nials and shrubs can be evergreen too. Boxwoood (Buxus spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9)  is a broadleaved evergreen that is popular.

Pinus spp. and cvs., Zones 3–10
Pinus spp. and cvs., Zones 3–10
Deciduous plants drop their leaves for the cold season. It’s because trees such as maples (Acer spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) are deciduous that you have to rake your yard in fall.

Acer spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9
Acer spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9
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