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Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Recap Part 1

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For December I thought we’d look back at all the words we have covered this year and bring them all together two posts. In Part 1 I’ll recap our vocabulary from January through June, then in part 2 I’ll add July through November. Here goes!

To read through each of the individual articles in more detail, here you can access the entire series:
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 1 (January)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 2 (February)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 3 (March)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 4 (April)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 5 (May)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 6 (June)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 7 (July)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 8 (August)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 9 (September)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 10 (October)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Part 11 (November)
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Recap Part 1
Understanding Garden Vocabulary – Recap Part 2


Annual – The word annual is normally used in the context of saying a particular plant is an ‘annual’. This basically means that the plant in question takes 1 full growing season, or one year, to go through all the life stages of plants from seed germination to death. A plant that is considered an annual does not generally live longer than 1 year, though in my opinion good annuals are ones that self reproduce and provide a brand new batch of annuals the following season.

Biennial – Again the word biennial is normally used in the context of saying a particular plant is a ‘biennial’. As is the case with many words, the meaning is in the structure of the word. The two letters ‘bi’ means 2 in latin, so a biennial plant is a plant that takes 2 growing seasons, or 2 years, to go through its lifecycle. In most cases this means the plant will grow its leaves in the first season and then its flowers and seeds in the second season, before dying at the end of its second season. Once again, hopefully a biennial would be replaced the following year by a new batch of seedlings.

Perennial – Perennial plants are plants that have a lifecycle that is longer than 2 years. Therefore most plants to my knowledge fall under the perennial category. Exactly when a perennial plant reproduces differs greatly, depending on the species. The main thing is they do not grow and die in 1 or 2 seasons, but continue to live on for multiple growing seasons.

Deciduous – A deciduous plant is one that loses its leaves during winter. Basically what this means is the plant is going into a hibernation phase, like many animals do, and will wait until the warm weather return before it uses its energy for growth. The opposite to a deciduous plant is an evergreen plant, which maintains leaves all year around. When you are driving around during autumn and see trees who’s leaves are turning yellow, orange, red or brown, you are looking at deciduous trees.


Mulch – Rather than specifically defining mulch I will explain, very briefly, its purpose. Mulch is a layer of material, usually organic (like manure, peat or straw) but not always, placed around plants to help maintain moisture. Mulch is also used to help suppress the growth of weeds around plants. Organic mulches work best in my opinion because they break down and help to fertilise the plants they are surrounding.

Compost – Many people get confused with the words mulch and compost and this is understandable, they are sometimes the exact same thing. HOWEVER the main purpose is usually different. Mulch is placed around plants to maintain moisture and suppress weeds, compost is placed around plants to provide nutrients and organic material to help improve the soil in which the plants live. This is why organic mulch can be of great benefit because as it breaks down it acts as an effective compost.  Compost is most often made of manures or decaying plant matter like grass clippings. Sometimes other fertilisers are mixed in with compost.

Manures and Fertiliser – You are probably sensing a trend here. Many people also often confuse compost and manure/fertiliser, once again because sometimes they are referring to the same thing. When manure is placed around plants it is done so as a compost, aimed at fertilising the plants, or providing nutrients. Manure is an example of an organic(matter which was once living or part of a living organism) fertiliser. Much of what we think of as fertiliser however is inorganic , either from naturally occurring minerals or manufactured from various elements. So basically a fertiliser is anything added to a plants environment aimed at providing some form of nutrient to make the plant healthier or grow more vigorously. A fertiliser may be organic (from something once living) in nature or inorganic (mineral or manufactured chemical) in nature. Manure is one example of an organic fertiliser.

Trace Elements – Plants basically work by taking nutrients from the soil and making them into various products that they need. These nutrients are usually an element of some kind. A trace element is any element that a plant requires for healthy growth that is usually naturally occurring in small amounts within fertile soil. In fact it is the presence of trace elements that makes a soil fertile or infertile.


Native – The word native basically means that a plant is indigenous, or originally occurring, in the area being described. For example, Australian native plants are plants that were found living naturally in Australia, they were not imported from another country. It is however better to be more specific about a species native habitat, for a plant naturally occurring in Western Australia may never have naturally occurred in New South Wales, so it would be more truthful to call it a West Australian native. Some native plants are found all over the country they live in, others are only located in specific pockets and therefore may not grow as well in other parts of even their native country. This is why it is sometimes best to find out what plants are native to your specific area, and not just the country you are living in, when choosing native plants.

Succulent – The main feature of a plant that is called a ‘succulent’ is its ability to conserve water. Succulents normally have large, fleshy stems or leaves, specifically designed to store water so that the plant is able to survive in climates where rainfall may be small. Often times if you were to break open the stem or leaf of a succulent plant, the broken stem or leaf will ooze large amounts of water. The aloe vera plant is an example of a succulent. Many people groups world-wide rely on succulent plants for finding water in harsh conditions where rainfall is sporadic at best.

Specimen Plant – A specimen plant is basically any plant that is placed in such a position that it becomes the feature, or focus, of the garden it is placed in. As such, some plants made better specimen plants than others. An example of a relatively common specimen plant in Australia is the Australian Grass Tree.

Ground Cover – Why am I defining what the term ‘ground cover’ means? Well, strangely enough, I have been asked this question before! So for anyone that us unable to work it out, a ground cover is a plant that naturally grows…along the ground, forming a cover of the ground around its root system. Ground covers are great for filling up empty space in and around other, larger plants. They are also fantastic because they help suppress the growth of weeds by limiting the space in which weeds are able to grow. Sometimes if you really like a particular plant but think it grows too big, looking for a ground cover variety can be beneficial.


Staking – Quite simply some plants require a little help as they grow because they become top-heavy, that is the top of the plant is heavier than the base or root system can support. In such cases it is helpful to stake them. This means to stick a piece of wood, or metal, or anything else that is strong next to the growing plant and as it grows, tie the new ‘top’ loosely(and this is the key) to the stake.  This way the stake is providing support but the tie is not restricting the plants growth, both upwards but also in terms of the thickness of the growing stems or branches. If, after you have staked a plant, the ties look to be causing a problem, simply loosen then or move them to a different area of the growing stem or branch.

Pruning – This is basically the removal of part of the plant to either restrict its size, shape the plant or promote flowers or fruit to grow. It may seem strange but for many plants, the loss of some of the plant, via cutting, encourages it to grow or fruit more vigorously. This is especially the case when the pruning involves the removal of dead or dying limbs. IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not go out and prune a plant without first doing a little bit of research into the best times for that particular plant. Some enjoy mid flower pruning, others require after flower pruning. There are many other things to take into account when pruning, which I will most likely discuss at some other point in time.

Grafting – The process of grafting is not really one for a gardening new comer, but it can be handy to understand the term when shopping for varieties because a ‘hybrid species’ variety is normally the result of two species either being grafted together, or being bred from a grafted species. Grafting is basically taking the stem or bud of one variety and joining it together with the stem or stem base of another variety of the same plant. Some grafts work better than others and some plants are more open to grafting, hence why the actual process of grafting is best left for intermediate or experienced gardeners. The resultant, grafted plant will have a blend of characteristics of the two parent varieties and the process can lead to more hardy plant varieties or produce more beautiful flowers.


Seeds – Seeds are what many, but not all, plants grow to reproduce. Seeds come in all shapes and sizes but are basically are small bundles of DNA material from parent plant/s (depending on whether the plant is sexual or asexual, more terms for another time) wrapped in some sort of protective material.  Seeds are produced either on the inside or outside of the fruit of a plant. Fruit is generally produced following the flowering of a plant.

Seedlings – The term seedlings can and is used to describe a few different things. Technically a seedling is a plant with only one unbranched stem. It is what is produced immediately following the germination of a seed. However in many cases the term seedling is applied to any young plant with only a few leaves or stems. This is often what is referred to by nurseries as ‘seedlings’.

Germination – The term germination applies to the first stage of development a seed takes in the process of becoming a plant. When the seed starts to grow, the seed shell breaks and a seedling bursts forth and grows towards the surface and eventually breaks through to grow into a plant. When the seed shell breaks it can be said the seed has ‘germinated’. Some seeds will lay dormant for a long time before they germinate, programmed specifically to wait for just the right environmental conditions.

Bud – The bud of a plant can refer to many varied things, but in general it is a tightly condensed shoot which is the beginnings of flower, stem or leaf growth. No flower, stem or leaf develops without first appearing as a ‘bud’ on a plant. Therefore all growth on a plant first starts out as a bud.


Bonsai – The art of bonsai is a very fun one, but one that requires much persistence and patience. Basically, bonsai is a Japanese technique to grow small or dwarf (see below) varieties of trees in small pots or containers. Some of the main varieties used with the bonsai technique are pine, maple and juniper trees. The aim of bonsai is to train the plant into a decorative form, decided by the owner. This is achieved by both tying the growing stems to very small metal or wooden stakes and by limiting the ability of the trees roots to grow by having it in a small pot. Every year or two the plant is removed from its pot, the roots are pruned and it is placed into a slightly larger pot or container. I myself got into bonsai for a while but it is not a short term commitment and requires much maintenance in trimming and pruning as the plant grows.

Dwarf – I defined the term bonsai before the term dwarf because these two words can be confused quite easily. This is because, as you are probably realising, some gardening words carry a multitude of meanings. However the term dwarf, as confusing as it can be, basically describes itself. A dwarf plant is basically a form or variety of plan that is smaller than another form of the plant. Sometimes this is achieved through a process like bonsai, meaning the plant has the same genetic make-up as other plants of the species, other times a dwarf plant is a variety or species that has been bred to specifically grow as a smaller plant without the need to limit its growth manually. See ‘hybrid’ below for further explanation.

Hybrid – A hybrid is a plant produced by combining two plants together, which is achieved by grafting, a term I defined in the April edition of this series. This is done to produce a plant with a mix of characteristics from the two parent plants. Usually the two plants that are combined are of the same species or genus because this is the best way to get a successful mix. This is one way a dwarf variety can be developed.

Topiary – This is another word to describe the process of clipping, trimming and training trees into a specific shape. The art or training a bonsai plant is a form of the art of topiary, on a small scale. However topiary can also be used on larger plants or shrubs. When you walk around and see delicately shapes trees or hedges, that is a form of topiary.

Don’t miss the final recap in part 2 of this wrap up!

So You Want A Better Garden?

All my best articles have been collected into what I’m calling the ultimate gardening toolkit – make sure you take a look, there’s a heap of great gardening advice available. I’ve also published a series of gardening ebooks that you might be interested in. Good luck!

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  • aussiegreenthumb

    A comment via email

    I want to comment on, firstly, your definition of native. Native is like English is Australia’s native tongue. It refers to a plant that grows naturally in Australia whereas indigenous is a plant that grows naturally in a particular area. Many council websites now have a list of indigenous plants which is plants that occur naturally within the council boundary.
    Second, I wanted to discuss the term hybrid. Grafting can be seen as hybridization in a manufactured way. The usual reference to hybrid comes from the mixing of two different forms of the same plant. For example in bayside Melbourne, where I live, we have several forms of Correa reflexa which have developed over many years. This has occurred because birds have come across Port Philip Bay carrying pollen from the same species but which has subtle differences. It can also occur when a species is grown in one area, sold to a nursery and then to a consumer who plants it in a very different area from the original location causing hybridization with the local form.
    This is my take on these two things and I would be interested in any further details or information you have on the subjects.

  • aussiegreenthumb

    These are both valid definitions. The thing I found, when I was doing some research, is that there is a wide degree of variety in ‘defining’ some terms.

    Regarding native, I tried to stay away from defining native as ‘Australian’ simply because I have some readers from other countries. Native is not country specific. There are plants native to South Africa and plants native to North America. Native to me simply means ‘originated in x country’

    You are correct in that Indigenous often does refer to plants native to a specific region, and this is often the way nurseries are now using the terms.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

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