Enough with Garden Jargon!
As with any special interest, hobby, or profession there is a lot of technical jargon and coded language in gardening. It’s a sort of loyalty test, a measure of your gardening prowess. Mostly it just makes new gardeners feel overwhelmed, self-conscious, and intimidated.
So today we’re blowing the lid on nonsense gardening jargon. Everyone is welcome in the garden and that starts with getting rid of obscure and confusing vocabulary that no one will explain. Guess what?We’re explaining it, so get ready.
Last Frost – this technically refers to the last date (often at night) in the late Winter or early Spring that experiences a frost (temperatures below 32ºF.) This is calculated based on Climate Normals. What are those? Three-decade averages of climatological variables including temperature and precipitation.
Although seeds may be fine, most plants will be killed or seriously traumatized by a hard frost (a light frost may only stress plants) so it’s important to know the last frost in your region before your buy a bunch of plants for your garden. In Richmond the last frost is usually around early- to mid-April.
You can consult a farmer’s almanac for the predicted last frost each year but let’s be honest, no one has a damn clue. Averaging 30 years of temperatures would be fine except Climate Change is real as hell and the atmosphere is unpredictable and no one predicted Brexit so how are they going to know the last frost?
In gardening the best defense is good offense and managing risk is a skill all gardeners must develop. So, how does one manage last frost? Plant early, plant often.
According to the internet, the last frost for 2018 is supposedly April 4th. Best approach is to plant some things one and two weeks in advance (week of 3/18 and 3/25.) Don’t go crazy but start getting a few seedlings and some seeds in the ground. Continue this through last frost week (4/1) and keep planting each week after. Your goal is to be early if at all possible. A late frost will kill off some of your plants which you can easily replace while an early last frost will award you an early start to the growing season.
Take home lesson: No one has a damn clue when last frost is actually going to happen. Plant early and often to give yourself the best chances of an early start but be prepared for a late frost. Also … there’s a first frost too in the Fall you need to plan around. No one really knows when that one is either.
Your “Zone” – this refers to your Plant Hardiness Zone which is a classification based on the average annual minimum winter temperature divided into 10º F zones. In essence, this can help you determine when to plant, what to plant, and how to plant it. Weightlifters ask how much you bench, gardeners ask about your zone. Honestly it just sounds cool.
You can find your zone based on your zip code at the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
And I’m a Zone 7b in case you were interested. I also like long walks on the beach. Preferably in a zone 10.
Hardening off – like many things in gardening this is less sexy than it sounds. Hardening off is the process of slowly introducing seedlings to the outdoors before transplanting. If you start seeds indoors and then plant them outside all of a sudden there’s a very high likelihood those dudes are gonna die. The slow approach is tedious but it works.
Over the course of a week you must introduce your seedlings to the outside world. On Day 1 put them outside in the sun for 1 hour. Then back indoors for the rest of the day. On Day 2 put them outside for 2 hours. Day 3, 3 hours. You get the idea.
“But Daniel,” you will say, “Introducing my plants into the world is some hippie, woowoo nonsense, they’re just plants.” And you will get impatient, and you will ignore my advice, and your plants will die and you will have no plants.
Take the time to harden off your seedlings properly. Trust me.
Pinching the Suckers – Bear with me on this — tomato plants grow extra, non-fruiting branches called side-shoots or “suckers.” They “suck” energy away from the fruit-bearing branches and reduce your overall tomato bounty. A responsible zone 7b gardener will check his or her tomato plants each week and prune the suckers by pinching them where the stem meets the stalk. They snap right off, very satisfying. But clipping is better as it makes a cleaner cut.
How can you tell the suckers from the fruit-bearing branches? Angles! Regular branches grow perpendicular to the stalk, suckers grow at 45º. See something, pinch something.
Runners – Some plants (specifically strawberries) propagate through runners which are horizontal stems that grow laterally above ground. These develop little nodes from which roots grow downward and produce a clone of the original plant. They’re a great way to produce lots of strawberry plants but they’re also a great way to drive a gardener crazy.
If you don’t stay on top of runners, strawberries will take over your garden and your yard and your life. A great way to contain strawberries is to grow them in containers above ground, or even plant those containers at ground level to appear as though they’re planted, or even surround your plants with some barrier like a buried piece of corrugated sheeting.
Overwintering – Gardeners throw this term around like it owes them money. If you hear this in conversation, the offender is either a seasoned gardener referring to their shallots or they’re just trying to impress you. Overwintering is the practice of planting certain plants (oftentimes bulbs or sets) in the late Fall for a late Spring or early Summer harvest.
Certain plants thrive through overwintering because they’re allowed to grow some roots in the Fall, go dormant through the Winter, and then come roaring back in the early Spring. Onions, garlic, and shallots are all great for overwintering. Just remember to mulch them well with leaves, straw, or compost to help keep them safe from the extreme cold.
And that concludes our first of many garden jargon debunking posts. Tune in another time to learn more about what nonsense gardeners say to sound cooler than you. Remember anyone can garden, everyone’s got a green thumb. The plants will tell you what they want, you only have to learn how to listen.
Also, what’s your zone, bro?
Stay gardening, people.