Gardening Terms You May or May Not Know

Test your green I.Q. with these garden terms.

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permaculture planting

permaculture plantings

Landscape planning that incorporates compatible plants strengthens the ecosystem. Pairing shade plants with those needing full light, shallow rooted with deep rooted plants and considering what insects may be attracted or repelled brings balance to the yard.

Keeping up with current trends in gardening and landscaping means exposure to unfamiliar buzz words. If you're not a professional gardener and dabble in it mostly as a hobby or side interest, it takes some effort to keep up. But the following terms—most of which are well known to industry professionals—are starting to pop up more frequently in the conversations of the average household gardener. See how many of these terms you already know.

Slow Gardening

You've probably heard of Slow Food, Slow Travel and Slow Art. Slow Gardening is part of this same cultural movement, one that emphasizes a slower, more relaxed and thoughtful approach to an activity in contrast to the fast pace of contemporary life. One of the major proponents of this trend is author, urban horticulturist and HGTVGardens blogger Felder Rushing, whose book Slow Gardening: A No-Stress Philosophy for all Senses and Seasons, lays out the basic tenets. Instead of being slaves to your garden, you can learn to enjoy it more by reducing repetitive chores and spacing them out in a leisurely manner. This can be accomplished by planting in stages and not all at once. It can also mean focusing more on raised beds and containers and less on a full time garden. Reducing the use of noisy lawn and garden equipment—use a manual push mover instead of a gas-powered mower—is another suggestion. Instead of keeping everything sheared and orderly, you could experiment by letting a hedge grow wild and informally. You get the idea. All in all, this is a very eco-friendly philosophy that is gaining popularity. 


A term popularized largely through the success of Toby Hemenway's book, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, the core philosophy here is to work with nature, not against it. Limits on consumption, redistributing surplus, sustainable land use and applied ecology are all key attributes of this movement. It encourages the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources. By creating productive ecosystems that have the resilience and diversity of nature, we can improve the quality of life and our environment. Derived from the words permanent and agriculture, permaculture is often attributed to Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, considered the fathers of the movement, who began espousing their integrated design philosophy in the mid-1970s. This solution-based approach to nature encompasses ecology, architecture, gardening, community design and horticulture. 


This is the opposite of monoculture, the prototype of current large scale farming methods, where one plant or crop is cultivated on a vast expanse of land with no diversity. Polyculture is all about creating an ecosystem—it could be on a small scale like a raised garden bed—and planting a group of interrelated, interdependent plants that can thrive in the same area despite a diverse genetic make-up from each other. The advantages of this are: a more efficient utilization of water and soil nutrients, a decrease in damage from pests and a reduced risk of plant failure from extreme weather conditions. A good example of this would be a small vegetable garden that contains different types of lettuce, cabbage and beans. The beauty of this arrangement is that it allows a continuous harvest of vegetables as the different varieties mature and produce at different times. Due to the thickness of the planting, weeds have little room to grow and the plot also functions as living mulch since new plants are always growing as the older ones die out. 


Coined by the Denver Water Department in 1981, xeriscaping is a non-traditional approach to landscaping that reduces the need for supplemental water for irrigation. Instead of lawns, people are opting to replace or reduce them with other alternatives that minimize water usage. Reassigning a portion of your yard to raise a wide variety of hearty, drought-resistance succulents like sedum, sempervivum, rosularia and cacti is one example. Well-known chef and gardener James Farmer says, "A meadow, and the wild free look they offer, is very hip. My clients are quickly replacing water-sucking, time-consuming lawns with wildflowers." For people who often encounter water restrictions during the growing season, this could be a welcome solution as opposed to trying to maintain something like a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn. 

Direct Seeding

Instead of starting your seeds in a greenhouse, nursery or indoor pot, you plant them directly into the ground where you want the plants or vegetables to grow. Direct seeded plants tend to produce an extensive root system rapidly with slower growing shoots whereas seeds sprouted in a nursery tend to yield larger shoots but the roots quickly become cramped in their plastic sacks or containers. Direct seeded plants, however, are better able to access the moisture in the soil and more drought-resistant due to their extensive root system. 

Crop Mobs 

According to some sources, the term crop mobs was coined in the Triangle region of North Carolina in October 2008 when a group of farmers and volunteers in the agricultural community came together to harvest sweet potatoes at the Piedmont Biofarm. It is essentially a utopian concept in which gardeners, landless farmers and agrarians come together to share their knowledge and help support sustainable community farms through their joint efforts. It has become increasingly popular among younger growers and urbanites, many of whom don't have extensive land of their own, but get together en masse to help farmers maintain, plant or harvest their land.

Rainwater Harvesting 

This is a popular form of water conservation that is easy to do. Some people acquire rain barrels or large cisterns for capturing storm water runoff as an alternative to regional water restrictions during droughts and as a secondary water source for their gardens, livestock or irrigation. But the more effective way to do this is by bioretention using rain gardens. These are shallow depressions (natural or man-made) in your yard using a combination of water tolerant plants and soils that capture rainfall. This method allows the water to soak in and infiltrate the ground, instead of flowing into storm drains, driveways or streets. The advantages of this include improving the water quality in nearby bodies of water like creeks and lakes, providing moisture redistribution in the ground and filtering out pollutants found in rainwater. 

Green Roofs

Ever seen photographs of those beautiful sod-roof houses in Great Britain, Sweden and other parts of Europe? The whole concept of green roofs evolved from that and it is starting to influence a lot of landscape designers in this country on both an aesthetic and environmental level. Among the many advantages of switching to green roofs, beside their natural beauty, is that the vegetation functions as a waterproofing membrane while absorbing rainwater, lowering air temperatures (particularly in urban areas) and providing insulation. They can also serve as habitats for wildlife and could be cultivated as gardens for city dwellers with limited space. 

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