Talkin’ Dirt: Conversations with Your Gardener


OCT. 12, 2022


It’s not easy keeping up with the weeds, or those hardy Weigela shrubs or the Pampas grass. And then there’s the watering and edging, and trimming, and dividing and replanting that gardens require. Whew! I’m exhausted just trying to come up with the lists of regular tasks to maintain a healthy garden. Perhaps you have help, or maybe you’re planning on engaging someone to shoulder some of the work.

If you have interviewed a company or an individual to take on your garden maintenance, you probably know what you want from this important assistant. But during those conversations you may have been befuddled and just a bit intimidated by the concepts and the lingo employed by professional gardeners. To help you prepare for your next encounter with an enthusiastic horticulturalist, let me offer you two lists; one list of topics or issues to resolve when you engage a gardener, and the second a small terminology and vocabulary reference that you can read over and discard, or keep around for future reference. You’ll be happier with the services your gardener provides if you have clearly communicated your wishes—what you expect of your gardener.

Let’s start with a list of 6 general topics and issues you might want to discuss with your gardener or potential gardener:


Timing: How often do you want your gardener to tend your lawn and gardens? Are there restrictions about time of day? Caution: Don’t forget to discuss weather’s impact on the prescheduled gardening. (I’ve watched neighbors’ gardeners come in the rain and “cut” the lawn. How close or even do you think that cutting will be? And, what about ruts in the lawn from the mowers?)


Trimming: Is “edging” included with “trimming?” Will hardy mums and lanky phlox be trimmed as needed? Will the shrubs be kept to their current size and shape? Or, do you want them to cut back the shrubs a little or a lot?


Clippings and detritus: Will the clippings and random leaves and grasses be collected and bagged or taken away each time the gardener tends the garden? Do you want this material to go into a compost pile somewhere on your property?


Liability: Your homeowner’s policy may cover any injury, but perhaps not. Be sure to check with your insurance agent before your gardener begins. (Some gardening companies have their own injury insurance.)


Laborers: Do you mind if the gardener brings additional laborers to work in your gardens? Do you want the gardener to remain with the workers while they’re on site?


Maintenance tasks: Will the gardener “dead-head” and divide bulbs and plants that seem to need attention? Do you want to make the decisions, or will you allow the gardener to decide? While working on your garden, do you want the gardener to be “on the lookout” for specific invasive weeds or vines? I’m fighting a losing battle with Liriope or monkey grass; so I want every blade, every tuft out of my garden! (It’s never going to happen, I fear.) But, if your gardener knows to be on the lookout for specific invaders, you’ll be happier with the care and maintenance your garden receives.

I urge you to occasionally revisit some of these issues with your gardener. Make sure you both remain clear on what will and won’t be done on a regular basis.



Okay, now on to terminology. Here are some of the gardener’s jargon, common terms that get tossed around. You won’t have to bat an eye when your gardener throws one your way.

CEC: Cation Exchange Capacity measures how much fertilizer your soil can hold and gradually release. (High CEC is good; the soil will hold and slowly release fertilizer.)

Compost: organic matter, such as fruit peel and coffee grinds, break down and decompose to form nitrogen rich fertilizer: designed to breakdown based on soil temperature.

Deadheading: snipping off dead blossoms, to encourage more prolific flowering

EC (electrical conductivity): the measurement for the salt content in soil. High EC is dangerous to plants.

Fertilizer – Controlled-Release also called Time-Released: new, more effective formulas that release nutrients based on soil temperature rather than microbial activity.

Genus: first part of a plant’s scientific name. (plural: Genera)

Harden off: preparing a plant for winter through the gradual chilling temperatures—typically autumn’s weather.

Head-space: in container planting, the area from the top of the soil to the rim of the pot.

Height of plants: the general terms for average size: short plants 10” or less; medium plants 10–24”; tall plants 24” or more.

Heirloom Plants: These are old-fashioned, usually hardy plants, fruits and vegetables that reproduce from their own seeds. Apples tomatoes and watermelon are popular heirloom specialties.

Micro-climate: areas of a garden where conditions differ from the general garden climate. (ex: a soggy spot or an area warmed by a brick wall)

NPK: the ratio of Nitrogen to Phosphorus to Potassium (K) in fertilizer.

Perennial / Annual: perennials usually become dormant over the winter months but reemerge when warmer weather returns; annuals usually do not survive the cold winter months and must be grown from seed or cutting in the spring.

Root-bound: potted plants whose roots circle the pot on the outside of the soil, indicating time for replanting.

Senescence: the characteristic of decay and deteriorating as plants age (even perennials)

Spillers and Fillers: as the names suggest, spiller plants gracefully trail over edges while filler plants are used to fill in spaces between more dramatic plant specimens in a flowerbed or pot.

Toxicity: unhealthy conditions in a plants environment, such as too much fertilizer, too much sun or shade, too many insects, etc.

Trace elements: nutrients needed in small quantities for healthy plant growth. For example: Boron, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Zinc. Most fertilizer products contain small quantities of these elements.

Variegated foliage: plant leaves that may be veined or edged in a color different from the primary leaves.

Xeriscape: landscaping with drought-resistant, native plants.

About J. F. Booth

I am a writer and educator.
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1 Response to Talkin’ Dirt: Conversations with Your Gardener

  1. says:

    Wow, after reading this, I’m glad I never decided to become a gardener. Very informative!!


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