University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Damping off, dessicate, direct seed.  Do you know what these and other terms mean that you may come across in seed catalogs, vegetable gardening books, and online websites?  Understanding a few of the main terms will help you to understand plant descriptions and cultural directions.
One of the first set of terms, which apply to flowers as well, relate to the plant life cycle.  Those that complete their life in one year, from seed to flower to seed (if a sufficient season), then die, are "annuals."  This includes many vegetables, and some herbs such as basil and dill.  Some vegetables such as asparagus, and herbs such as thyme and mint, are "perennials."  They come back each year, dying back to the ground in winter.  Some herbs are "tender perennials," such as rosemary or bay, not living over winter in cold climates but surviving where warmer.
Those that take two years for this life cycle are "biennials."  This includes many of the root crops such as turnips and onions and carrots, and crucifers such as cabbage and kale.  But don't get confused, as these are grown for their roots or leaves to harvest the first year, so are treated as annual crops.  Parsley is biennial too, so if it overwinters and then dies after flowering the second year, that's why. 
Other terms refer to the part we harvest, or family grouping, as above.  "Root crops" such as onions are pretty obvious, as are "leafy greens" such as lettuce. "Crucifers" are those in the crucifer or mustard family and include such as cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, horseradish, and broccoli.  These may be seen too as "cole crops."  "Cucurbits" refer to the family containing squash, melons, pumpkins, and warm season crops. "Umbellifers" are yet another family, those with flat flower clusters such as parsley, dill, and fennel.
Vegetables are often grouped by the general temperature they need to grow best.  "Cool season" crops such as carrots and greens are best in spring or fall.  "Warm season" crops such as melons, squash, tomatoes, and corn grow best in warm temperatures of summer.  Don't plant the latter too early (many gardeners plant on or after Memorial Day), as planted too early they won't grow and may get stunted or stressed. They're sensitive to cold nights, so if you do plant early, keep some frost protection handy such as lightweight frost protection cloths, even old sheets.
A couple of climate terms you should know are "frost date" and "hardiness zone."  The frost date is the average expected last frost in your area, which of course may vary yearly.  This may be early May in warmer parts of Northern New England, for instance, early June in colder regions.
For perennials, you'll need to know their hardiness zones, and yours.  Each zone refers to the average, annual minimum winter temperature, and can be found from the USDA hardiness zone map (
When choosing vegetables, for those that get serious diseases, look for ones that are "disease resistant."  These are ones that have had resistance bred into them for a particular disease, so they tend not to be infected.  Often you'll see letters denoting such resistance in the plant descriptions, with symbol key in the catalog, such as F for fusarium wilt, LB for late blight, V for verticillium wilt, or TMV for tobacco mosaic virus.
If a plant is a "hybrid," it is a cross between at least two other plants.  This means that in order to get the same plant, you'll need these other plants.  Sowing seeds of the hybrid usually will not give you the same plants.  F1 and F2 refer to the generations of crosses to make the hybrid.  "Open pollinated" are plants whose seeds come about from plants crossing on their own, so often yield similar plants when their seeds are sown.
If you start your own seeds indoors, often you transplant into larger pots when the plant has at least two "true leaves", compared to the first couple of "seed leaves" ("cotyledons") which often look quite different, usually being rounded.  But, if you sow seeds directly into the garden, this is "direct seeding."  Usually, when direct seeding, you sow “thicker” or more seeds than needed in case some don't germinate.  If so, you'll need to "thin" or remove weaker plants to allow proper spacing.
When deciding where to plant, practice "crop rotation."  There are several variations on this, but basically it means not planting the same crop in the same place for at least a couple years, three is better.  By rotating different crops in the same space over the years, you'll help both soil quality and to prevent diseases.
If you start seedlings indoors, you'll want to gradually acclimate them to outdoor temperatures and light-- "hardening off."  If you keep seedlings too wet, they may get a disease which makes them topple at the soil line, termed "damping off."  On the other hand, too dry and they'll dry out or "dessicate", which may be permanent.
When fertilizing plants in the garden, sprinkling fertilizer uniformly over  a whole bed is "broadcasting,", while "banding" or "sidedressing" is applying fertilizer or compost along a row of plants-- the latter being on the surface, the former slightly below soil level.
These are only a few of the more basic terms to get you started.  More, and full details on crop culture, can be found in references such as Vegetable Gardening for Dummies, by Vermont author Charlie Nardozzi.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles uvmext logo