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Translating quirky gardening terms into English

Gardening often involves its own language. For example, irises are often called 'bulbs,' but the underground structure is accurately called a rhizome. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum1 / 3
Another gardening term that may need translating is “picking vegetables close,” which refers to harvesting beans that are ready and those that will be soon. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum2 / 3
Don Kinzler, gardening columnist 3 / 3

Let's pretend we're completely unfamiliar with gardening jargon. Imagine how odd it sounds when someone says they tied up their cauliflower. If the neighbor dusted their cabbage, did they give it a good cleaning? What could a gardener possibly mean by saying they're going to pick the string beans close?

There's a unique language spoken by gardeners that deserves translation. Here's the newest chapter in the collection of gardening phrases we've been compiling during the past several years.

  • "Tying up cauliflower" means securing the long leaves up around the newly forming head to exclude light, keeping white varieties from turning off-color.
  • "Self-blanching" means a cauliflower variety has leaves which naturally form around the developing head, keeping it white.
  • "Dust" is powdery-dry insecticide applied to foliage in a light coating.
  • "Acid-loving" are plants that prefer acid soil for normal growth and bloom. They are often unsuccessful in the naturally alkaline soil of the Upper Midwest.
  • "Picking vegetables close" describes picking string beans (and similar types) by harvesting beans that are ready plus those that soon will be. Before leaving on vacation for a week, it's best to pick the string beans close so small ones won't be overgrown on your return.
  • "Borers" are insects, usually worm-like larvae, that tunnel into stems of woody plants. Examples are bronze birch borer and lilac borer.
  • "Tender perennials" aren't fully winter hardy in a region without extra protection, such as insulating mulch or reliably deep snow cover.
  • "Poor soil" lacks nutrients for normal plant growth. Sometimes it refers to overly light soil with no substance, or the very heavy, off-color clay below rich topsoil.
  • "Foliage plants" are grown for their colorful or interesting leaves, rather than flowers.
  • "A specimen tree" is a tree type that performs well in a featured, very visible location.
  • "Exposure" refers to the direction of planting. Hydrangeas do well in an eastern or northern exposure.
  • "An exposed location" receives little protection from the elements and is often windswept and open. Tender perennials do poorly in exposed locations unless extra winter protection is provided.
  • "Feeder roots" are the portion of the root system that absorbs most nutrients and moisture, and in a tree, are located closest to the outer "dripline" of the tree's leafy canopy.
  • "Bulb" is a term often loosely used to describe enlarged underground plant structures. In accurate botanic terms, lily, onion, and tulip are bulbs; iris are rhizomes; gladiolus are corms; dahlias are tubers
  • "Rotating vegetables" means changing their planting location within the garden, mostly for reducing diseases that overwinter in the soil, as in tomatoes, potatoes and vine crops.
  • "Well-prepared soil" is tilled or dug deeply and amended if necessary with organic material to create favorable growing conditions.
  • "Edging plants" are low-growing annuals or perennials used along the front of flower beds or landscape plantings.
  • "Invasive" plants can quickly overtake their surroundings. Lily-of-the-valley becomes an invasive groundcover if it's spread is not contained.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at

He also blogs at