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Seed-Starting Glossary

Learn some gardener-to-gardener definitions to help you plant like a pro

What does that mean?

Lots of terms, classifications, and techniques are tossed around in casual conversation about seed starting. Some you may already know, but others may puzzle you. Here are some gardener-to-gardener definitions that will have you talkin’ plants like the pros. See more in the Gardening Glossary.

  • Annuals are plants that live for one year or less; in that time, they grow, flower, produce seed, and die.
  • Biennials are plants that grow leaves the first year of life, and in the second year, they produce flowers, set seed, and die.
  • Blanching is a technique to exclude light from part of a plant to make it more tender and tasty. To blanch leeks, for example, piling soil on top of new growth creates stalks that are more tender.
  • Bolting is when a plant sends up a flower stalk in anticipation of setting seed. This is bad for leafy crops, like lettuce, because it makes the leaves taste bitter and takes the plant’s focus off making leaves. To prevent bolting, pinch off any flower stalks when you see them.
  • Chaff is the dry, brittle remnants of flowers, husks, leaves, or stems that should be separated and discarded from collected seeds.
  • Cold frames are unheated, bottomless, glass or plastic enclosures used to protect sensitive plants from low temperatures or to germinate seeds that require exposure to the cold.
  • Cool-season crops are vegetables that do not thrive in extreme heat; they grow better in the cool temperatures of spring and fall.
  • Cotyledons are the first green growth to emerge when a seed germinates. Also called “seed leaves,” they are a source of plant food before true leaves emerge.
  • Cross-pollination occurs when pollen from one plant fertilizes a flower on another plant.
  • Damping off is a fungal disease that causes seedlings to die soon after germination. Damp conditions and poor air circu­lation create the perfect environment for this disease.
  • Germination occurs when a seed breaks dormancy and plant growth begins.
  • Growing season is the period of time between the last killing frost in spring and the first killing frost in fall.
  • Hardening off is to gradually introduce seedlings and plants that have been indoors to the bright light, stronger winds, and variable temperatures found outside.
  • Leggy seedlings have weak stems and spindly, sparse growth; they are usually caused by low light or crowded conditions.
  • Perennials are plants that live for more than two years and produce flowers and fruit every growing season.
  • Pricking out is a technique for transplanting groups of seedlings from flats to individual pots to give them more room to grow.
  • Scarification is the process of breaking through the seed coat by scratching, nicking, chipping, or notching it to allow water to penetrate.
  • Self-pollination occurs when the pollen of a flower fertilizes that same flower or another flower on the same plant.
  • Stratification is the process of providing seeds that need cold temperatures to germinate with an artificial chilling period.
  • Successive sowing is planting the same crop two or more times in one season to lengthen the harvest.
  • Taproot is a plant’s large central root, which often makes the plant difficult to transplant.
  • Thinning is the process of pulling out or snipping off excess seedlings to eliminate crowding and competition among plants.
  • True leaf is green foliage that develops after the cotyledon; a sign of maturity, it indicates that the seedling has developed the ability to create its own food.
  • Viable seeds are seeds that are alive and capable of germination.
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