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Experts take on gardening jargon

The cold compost method will produce compost in one to two years. Hot composting takes only three to six months.

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The cold compost method will produce compost in one to two years. Hot composting takes only three to six months.



Garden jargon can leave a smart person feeling dumb, and let’s not even talk about Latin botanical names. Really, let’s not.

Instead, we’ll concentrate on common terms used as if everyone should know them. Like what’s a cover crop or cold composting? What’s a hardiness zone? And what, for goodness sake, is an open-pollinated plant? Let’s find out. A handful of Oregon State University Extension Service experts step up with definitions. Here we go.

Annual vs. biennial vs. perennial: An annual plant lives its life cycle in one season. Biennials live for two years. A perennial plant lives from year to year. Herbaceous perennials – like peonies or delphiniums – die to the ground each year and return the next. Tender perennials are perennials that are native to warmer climates than where you live and may not live through winter.

Open-pollinated vs. hybrids vs. heirloom: Open-pollinated vegetables are pollinated by insects, birds, wind or humans. As long as varieties don’t share pollen and you save the seed, the next generation (or offspring) will be “true to type.” In other words, the next year’s vegetables or fruits will be the same as the ones produced by the parents.

Many, but not all, open-pollinated plants are heirlooms, which developed as families and communities gathered and saved seed from the best plants and passed them down generation to generation. Like antiques, when these open-pollinated plants get to a certain age (50 is accepted), they become heirlooms.

Hybrids are bred from two different varieties for characteristics like disease resistance or higher yield. They won’t come true to type. Seeds or plants must be purchased each year.

Row cover fabric: Row cover fabric is made of spun polyester and is permeable to air and water. It traps heat and can increase air and soil temperatures by 4 to 7 degrees, helping to create earlier crop yields and to extend the crop season. The fabric also can be used to provide a measure of pest protection. For crops like carrots, beets, and greens, it can be laid directly on top of beds with some slack so that the plants push the material up as it grows.  For bigger plants like broccoli, use bent electrical conduit or heavy-duty wire supports to keep the fabric suspended above the plants. Secure the fabric to the soil with bags filled with soil or sand, boards, rocks, etc.  It’s important to perform bug check and good hygiene under row cover fabric. The slugs really like it there as much as the veggies.

Fabric or plastic that lays on the ground to raise the temperature of the soil and keep down weeds is called non-organic mulch.

Organic vs. natural vs. non-organic vs. synthetic: Organic and natural are used interchangeably as are non-organic, chemical and synthetic. To make it clear, we’ll us organic and synthetic. Organic fertilizers and pesticides are derived from mineral, plant or animal sources. Synthetic products are made by humans using methods different than those nature uses, and the chemical structures may or may not be found in nature.

For gardeners who want to buy organic products, look for the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) and Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) seals. The most misunderstood thing about organic pesticides is that they are not toxic. That’s not true. For example, nicotine, which is used in some pesticides, is highly toxic. Read the label when you buy a pesticide to determine its ingredients, which pests it targets and any cautions. Always follow the directions.

More information about all aspects of gardening is available in Extension’s Growing Your Own publication.



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