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McKay Nursery Company

Become a Plant Pro with our Garden Glossary

4/30/2021 8:12 AM

Written by

McKay Staff

in Gardening 101 Glossary

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. Learning to speak “garden” isn’t hard at all. These simple definitions can help you get started down that road:



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. Learn more about soils by clicking here

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. Learn more about soils by clicking here

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 summer months. Though annuals naturally die at season’s end, some types scatter seed and grow again the next year. We’re excited that Winterland Nursery, our Madison-area retail garden center, will offer colorful annuals in flats and hanging baskets for the first time this spring.


Balled and Burlapped (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. Learn more about our various plant types and sizes by clicking here.

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 rootShop 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. Click here to learn more about soil types.

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. See our three easy ways to help keep the deer away.

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. Click here to learn possible solutions for your drainge problems.

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 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 speciality garden products.


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). See our top 5 low-maintenance groundcovers you'll love!

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. Click here to learn more about soil types.

Herbicide is a product that controls plants. Click here to shop our speciality products

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 our speciality products.

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. Did you know McKay was one of the first nurseries in the nation to be SANC certified (Systems Approach to Nursery Certification)? This national certification is backed by the USDA and National Plant Board (to name a few) and it means we're meeting stringent growing methods.  Learn more about our SANC certificaiton and what it means for you by clicking here!

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Loam soil is fertile, well-drained soil; loams have an ideal balance of sand, silt, and clay particles, along with abundant organic matter and humus content. Click here to learn more about soil types.



Miticide is a product that controls mites. Click here to shop our speciality products.


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Over-wintering is a process where a plant that is not cold hardy is taken indoors or otherwise manipulated to keep it alive through the winter


Part Sun/Part Shade means 3 to 6 hours of sunlight. Click here to learn more about our fundamentals on sunlight.

Perennials are plants that take three or more years to complete their natural life cycle. While shrubs and trees are “perennial,” most gardeners reserve this word for soft-stemmed plants that die back to the ground each winter. As long as perennials are grown within their recommended hardiness zones, they should come back in your garden year after year. (Some gardeners like to push the envelope and grow them outside their zones; if you do, just expect them to die like an annual would.) With native perennials such as Butterfly Weed or Blue False Indigo, you can feel confident they’ll come through normal winters just fine. Click here to shop all of our perennials and grasses.

pH is a scale from 0-14 that explains the degree of acidity or alkalinity of the water or soil. Soil pH is very important because it affects the availability of nutrients to plants and the activity of microorganisms in the soil.

Prune is using pruning shears, scissors, a knife, or loppers to shape or rejuvenate a plant, not to increase branching.  Generally pruning is much more drastic than pinching.  Pruning is most commonly used on shrubs, trees, and perennials. Click here to see our calendar on when to prune your plants. Watch our "How-to" videos on YouTube to learn more details on pruning.


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Sandy Soil is composed of many irregular to rounded tiny grains of sand, as opposed to the many tiny plate-like soil particles that make up a clay soil. Sandy soil drains very quickly and doesn't hold on to fertilizer well. Click here to learn more about soil types.

Scorch is when plants receive too much sun, pesticide or fertilizer the foliage may look brown or yellowish.  The foliage in these cases is said to be scorched. 

Self-Pollinating are plants with the ability to pollinate themselves, meaning they can produce fruit with their own pollen (as opposed to those that require the pollen of another plant of the same species), which is useful where space is limited; many fruit trees are not naturally self-pollinating (also referred to as self-fertile) though breeders have developed varieties to overcome this trait.

Soil Amendment is material added to the soil to improve its properties. This may include; water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, aeration and structure. Soil amendments are mostly organic matter or very slow release minerals and are typically worked into the topsoil.

Soil Test is a measurement of the major nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) and pH levels in the soil. Visit our page on testing garden soil to help guarantee your growing success.


Tilth describes the general health of the soil including a balance of nutrients, water, and air. Soil that is healthy and has good physical qualities is in good tilth.

Top Dress is spreading fertilizer or compost over the surface of the soil just before planting, as opposed to tilling the amendments into the soil; can also refer to spreading fertilizer over an established planting, a technique often used on lawns.

Topsoil is the fertile, biologically-active layer of soil closest to the surface; topsoil includes organic matter, humus and a plethora of microbes, earthworms, and insects.

Toxicity is when a plant does not react well to something it is often called Toxicity.  Toxicity could refer to too much fertilizer, too much sun, sensitivity to insecticides etc.

Transplanting is transferring a plant to a different growing space.



Upright is a plant that is taller than it is wide with straight (more or less) edges, these plants often have a somewhat spikey appearance.

Understory is the vegetative layer and especially the trees and shrubs between the forest canopy and the ground cover.


Variegation describes when plant leaves have two or more colors, from irregular splotches to crisp lines along their outer edge. The variegated leaves on our exclusive McKay Citrus Swizzle Forsythia start out as lime-green with chartreuse. But as the season progresses, the leaves mature to light green with creamy white. European Variegated Dogwood leaves start the year with green-and-cream variegation, but they end the season with leaves of cream and purple-red. In many plants, variegation intensifies through the growing season.



Winter Burn occurs when low soil moisture, freezing temperatures, and heavy winds occur. With these 3 factors in place, plants lose moisture through transpiration faster than their roots can replace it from the frozen ground. Click here to learn more about winter burn and how to treat your plants.


Xeriscaping is a sustainable landscaping style that emphasizes water conservation and puts the spotlight on low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants that require little or no supplemental irrigation. (“Xeric” comes from the Greek word meaning dry.) Xeriscaping got its start in Colorado’s arid western climate, but the its water-conserving principles can be applied to gardens everywhere. Succulent sedums are great choices for low-maintenance, water-wise xeriscapes.  



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Put your new vocabulary to work by browsing through our current catalog, or shop our plants online for in-store pickup, local truck delivery or FedEx home delivery almost anywhere in the continental United States. If you’re anywhere near the Madison, WI area, be sure to stop in at our retail garden center, Winterland Nursery. We’ll help you practice your “garden-speak” and show you why we love what we do.


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