Home Improvement

Learning the Lingo: Garden Terms, From Grading to Macronutrients

  • Plant hardiness zones

    Plant hardiness zones

  • Flower garden

    Flower garden

  • Garden fountain

    Garden fountain

Now that spring is here, you might be hankering to try some gardening. But how do you pick among the bright and beautiful options at your local nursery? Let us help you with our latest installment of Learning the Lingo, which is devoted to defining all the flora in your yard.

Whether you are bumping up your curb appeal to sell your home this summer or just want to pretty up the scenery for your own sake, here are the words you'll need to know.


These plants live their entire lives -- grow, bloom, seed -- in just one year. But, oh, what a year that is! Homeowners dress up their yards with flower boxes and beds filled with brilliantly colored annuals such as pansies in the spring, petunias in summer, and asters in autumn.

Annuals require little care: Water when the soil becomes dry, "deadhead" (or remove) spent blooms to encourage more flowers, and feed occasionally with nutrient-rich compost or fertilizer. When the plant has fulfilled its destiny, toss it into your compost bin, so it can feed annuals next year.


Perennials live forever (well, not forever, though properly tended perennials live for many years). They save you money, because you buy them only once, and many species produce hundreds of offspring through the years (you can eventually grow a yard full of day lilies from just one plant). But what you save in money you'll spend in time: Perennials need attention.

You must water, feed, prune, deadhead, divide, cut down, and protect them from harsh winters. But the plants reward your attention. Like dear friends, they show up again and again, and help your garden mark time. When crocuses pop, it must be spring; when tulips bloom, Easter is almost here; and when mums grow massive, the first hard frost can't be far behind.


The whole point of soil is to hold water, air, and nutrients, which plants need to thrive. But if it holds too much water, the roots of your plants will rot, fungal disease will spread, and mosquitoes will breed. That's why you need drainage to keep the excess water moving along.

High water tables, clay subsoil, and seepage from higher areas can hurt soil drainage. If your dirt is constantly soggy, dig organic matter (e.g., rotted grass clippings and leaf compost) into the ground, which will bind to clay soil particles and force them apart. Regrading wet spots to aid runoff will also improve drainage (see our next point for more details).


Grading is the slope of land -- or creating the slope so it serves a particular purpose. Grading should direct water away from your house. If your basement is constantly damp, you may have to regrade your yard to form slopes or gullies that shuttle water away from your foundation.

Macronutrients and micronutrients

Just like you, plants need nutrients to grow. Macronutrients are essential elements that plants need in the greatest quantities: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sulfur, and magnesium. Micronutrients are needed in smaller quantities: boron, chlorine, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and nickel.

Most soil has more of some nutrients, less of others. Conduct a soil test every three to five years, which will tell you how to amend soil to help your plants thrive.


Mulch is any organic material you can spread around plants and trees to retain moisture and heat, and keep down weeds. DIY by grinding dead leaves and grass into free mulch. Or you can spend $5 for a bag of shredded hardwood, which provides a more uniform look and enhances curb appeal. When you spread mulch, keep it 2 inches away from tree trunks and plant stems to prevent rot.


Pruning is shaping and trimming to remove dead branches and open plants so sun can shine through. Pruning also keeps trees from growing onto electrical wires or draping onto lawns, which can kill turf and spread disease. Sometimes pruning just makes plants look prettier.

Remember to sharpen pruning shears before using, and disinfect afterward by cleaning with diluted solutions of bleach (25%), rubbing alcohol (70%), or pine oil cleaner (25%).

Plant hardiness zones

For every plant, there is an optimal season and climate. Plant hardiness zones divide the U.S. and Canada into climate and temperature areas and give growers information about which plant will most likely thrive where.

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the gold standard and is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature. Make sure you check plant labels, which recommend the best zones for particular species.


If it's a permanent part of your yard, and it's not alive, it's a hardscape -- meaning paths, bridges, patios, pools, and walls. Hardscapes break up the monotony of all those plants and trees: A well-placed fountain adds texture and sound to a garden; a tall trellis lets climbing plants crawl up the sides of houses and fences.

Hardscaping should be part of an overall landscaping plan, not just a koi pond stuck in the middle of a lawn. If design isn't your strong suit, consult a pro -- because unlike begonia beds that next year can grow geraniums, hardscaping is tough and expensive to pull out.