Sometimes when we gardeners get together, it can seem like we talk in code. But don’t let that deter you if you’re a beginner gardener. Learning to speak “garden” isn’t hard at all. These simple definitions can help you get started down that road. Whether you're a new homeowner and landscaping for the first time or a beginner gardener who is overwhelmed with plant labels, soil testing, or what to plant where. We're here to help with this handy "beginning gardener" guide to common gardening terms:


Acidic is a soil, compost, or liquid with a pH between 0 and 7.0 (on a scale of 0.0-14.0). Often referred to as “sour” soil by gardeners.

Alkaline is a soil with a pH between 7.0 and 14 (on a scale of 0.0-14.0). Often referred to as “sweet” soil by gardeners.

Annuals are plants that complete their entire life cycle in a single growing season, but they typically put on quite a show during their short lives. Sometimes called “bedding plants,” annuals like zinnias and marigolds add long-lasting color during the summer months. Though annuals naturally die at the season’s end, some types scatter seed and grow again the next year. We’re excited that McKay Garden Center, with locations in the Madison area and Fox Valley, will offer colorful annuals in flats and hanging baskets this spring.


Balled and Burlap (B&B) refers to generally larger trees or shrubs that were grown in the ground at a nursery. When ready for sale they are dug, wrapped in burlap, and then sold. Our plants are placed in wire baskets in addition to being wrapped in burlap. Due to their massive size, these are only shipped by our local delivery trucks within roughly a 60-100 mile radius around Waterloo, Wisconsin.

Bare Root are plants, usually trees and shrubs, that are sold with little to no soil around the roots. Some perennials are also sold as bare root plants. This is the most common size when shipping mail-ordered plants. Learn more about our bare root material by clicking here or watch our quick video to learn about the process behind bare root. Shop bare root now!

Biennial is a plant that completes its full life cycle in two growing seasons. It produces leaves in the first and flowers in the second.

Bone Meal is finely ground fertilizer composed of white or light gray bone that adds phosphorus to the soil.


Clay Soil is soil composed of many tiny plate-like soil particles that can compact with time to form a hard, solid mass that makes shoveling difficult, digging holes more laborious, and often results in poor drainage.

Climbing refers to plants that climb fences or other structures by using roots or stem structures to grip. Vines are climbers. Shop our vines & climbing plants now!

Clump Forming are plants that form clumps of foliage, often spreading to form other clumps close by.

Companion Planting is planting different plants together that benefit one another. For example, sowing a plant that attracts pollinators next to a plant that requires pollination.

Compost is organic material often made from decomposed/broken down plant material. Compost can be used to replenish soil nutrients and introduce soil biology to a growing area or simply to reduce landfill waste.

Cross-Pollination is when two or more plants of the same species pollinate each others’ flowers; for many fruit trees, cross-pollination is necessary to produce a crop.

Cultivar is a species that was selected or bred by humans for a particular feature. Cultivars carry a specific name in addition to the scientific name and/or common name, e.g., Brandywine.

Cuttings is a method of plant propagation where a leaf, stem, or bud is cut from a parent plant in order to make a new plant. The cutting is then “planted” into a growing medium such as potting mix, in order to form roots and establish itself as a new plant. McKay does a tremendous amount of cuttings here at the nursery.


Dappled Shade are areas where there is a mixture of sun and shade, generally because a deciduous tree is nearby. Dappled shade is similar to partial shade.

Deadheading is cutting spent flowers off a plant, encouraging the plant to bloom again; extending the bloom period.

Deciduous are trees or shrubs that lose their leaves in fall and winter. Shop our huge selection of deciduous shrubs.

Deer Resistant Plants are plants that deer are less likely to nibble on. Hungry deer (or rabbits, ground hogs, squirrels, etc...) will, however, eat almost anything if they are hungry. Deer tastes also vary by region so trial and error may be necessary to choose deer resistant plants for your area.

Drainage is the ability for water to pass freely through the soil; without good drainage, which can be achieved by building raised beds or adding soil amendments, the planting area becomes waterlogged.

Drought tolerance refers to a plant’s ability to endure lingering dry periods and bounce back when rains return, without looking too much worse for wear. Drought-tolerant plants need to get well established in your landscape before they can perform these feats of resilience, so always give them extra attention — and extra water, as needed — during their first year. Deep-rooted native grasses such as Little Bluestem Grass and Prairie Dropseed Grass are examples of exceptionally drought-tolerant ornamentals.

Dwarf is a plant that has been bred to be smaller than is typical for the species; fruit trees are often classified according to their degree of dwarfness.


Exposure is the optimum amount of sun or shade each plant needs to thrive. Click here to learn more about the fundamentals of understanding sunlight requirements.

  • Full Sun - 6 or more hours of direct sun a day
  • Partial Sun or Partial Shade - 3 to 6 hours of direct sun a day
  • Full Shade - less than 3-4 hours of direct sun a day
  • Dappled Shade - areas where there is a mixture of sun and shade, generally because a deciduous tree is nearby. Dappled shade is similar to partial shade.


Full Sun means 6 or more hours of sunlight.

Fungicide is a product that controls a fungus. Shop our fertilizers


Genus is the first part of the two-part scientific name that is used for plants on our website.

Groundcover is a plant that spreads across the ground, rooting itself as it goes. These plants are typically used on slopes, for erosion and underneath trees (understory).

Growing Season are the number of days between the average last frost date in spring and the average first frost date in autumn. Since most blooms will be killed off by frost, it is essential to grow them during your growing season if planting them outdoors. Some other plants require a minimum number of days to reach maturity, so make sure your growing season is long enough and that you plant them early enough in the season in order to get the most growth out of your plants!


Habit is the general structure of the plant or manner of growth.

  • Climbing - Plants that climb fences or other structures by using roots or stem structures to grip, vines are climbers.
  • Clump Forming - Plant that forms clumps of foliage, often spreading to form other clumps close by.
  • Mounded - Plants with a rounded appearance, they are usually wider than they are tall.
  • Spreading - Plants that grow low and spread along the ground, rooting at nodes along the stem.
  • Trailing - Plants that trail along the ground or out of pots but do not root at nodes along the stem.
  • Upright - A plant that is taller than it is wide with straight (more or less) edges, these plants often have a somewhat spikey appearance.

Hardiness zones are plant-growing regions designated by climate, with a special emphasis on winter temperature extremes. The nursery industry’s standard for hardiness zones is the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. When new plants enter the market, they earn hardiness zone ratings based on trials in different climates. These ratings, shown on plant tags and in catalog descriptions, reflect the zone range where each plant should thrive. Our Waterloo, WI nursery and our Madison-area garden center are both in USDA plant hardiness zone 5a. When gardeners say "hardiness" they are referring to the degree to which a plant can withstand cold temperatures.

Heavy Soil is a soil that contains a high proportion of clay and is poorly drained.

Herbicide is a product that controls plants. Click here to shop fertilizers.

Hybrid is when two specific parent varieties are bred to achieve a first generation hybrid offspring. F1 hybrids are not open-pollinated. Traditionally, "hybrid" indicates any variety that had been made by cross-pollinating, even if that was completed by hand or an insect.

Humus is the brown or black organic part of the soil that results from the decay of leaves or other organic matter.


Insecticide is a product that controls insects. Click here to shop fertilizers.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a pest control strategy that uses an array of complementary methods: natural predators and parasites, pest-resistant varieties, cultural practices, biological controls, various physical techniques, and pesticides as a last resort. It is an ecological approach that can significantly reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides.