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Becky Livermore/Beltrami County Master Gardener: Learning the garden language

Just like every other segment of society, gardening has a vocabulary of its own.

Without an understanding of this vocabulary, there’s no way we can speak the language. This makes it difficult to know what’s what.

Most gardeners know the difference between annual and perennial plants, but do you know there’s also a biennial plant? It grows green foliage the first year and sets flowers and fruit the next. Then it dies. We often confuse biennials with perennials because they are adept at re-seeding. Examples of common biennials are hollyhocks, parsley, foxglove and raspberries. If your hollyhocks that bloomed last year don’t appear this spring, it’s because they didn’t start new plants last season.

Hybrid versus heirloom leads to confusion, too, particularly for those of us who like to save seeds. A hybrid plant is the result of the purposeful crossing of two pure lines to get desirable traits from both parents. An heirloom plant, on the other hand, is one that has been around for at least 50 years, and isn’t specifically crossed with any other plant and is the result of natural selection from year to year. It usually produces plants with the same traits as the parent plant.

What about the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes? By knowing this difference, we can understand the growth habit and thereby, the needs of the plants we are growing. A determinate (bush) tomato grows to a certain size and then puts its energy into ripening fruit. Fruits will then ripen over a concentrated period of time. Plants are compact and don’t require huge trellises or tall cages. Indeterminate (vining) tomatoes continue to grow until frost, flowering and setting new fruit continuously. They require elaborate methods to support and contain the plant and also benefit from pruning. Heirloom tomatoes are in this category.

Many of us are buying seeds this month. Will you buy treated seeds? They may have a coating of fungicides and/or insecticides that protect the seeds from rotting or insect damage. If you don’t like this idea, be sure to read the packet information closely so you know what you’re buying.

Pelleted or coated seeds, on the other hand, are seeds enclosed in simple clay to bulk them up and make them easier to handle and see. Sometimes these seeds are also “primed,” a hydration treatment bringing seeds to the brink of germination followed by drying. This makes them germinate more quickly but decreases storage life.

The verb bolt often appears in descriptions of salad greens. From the dictionary’s definition, we may expect the lettuce to suddenly take off running into our neighbor’s yard. This term refers to the tendency of a plant to send up a flower/seeds, usually as a result of too much heat. Purchasing lettuce seeds, for instance, with a resistance to bolting, is a real plus since our summers can be too hot for these cool-loving plants.

How much stock should we put in the days to maturity line on seed packets? Some, but not too much. Use this phrase as a guideline in selecting varieties of plants. Keep in mind that our growing season is often three months (90 days). Maturity days rely heavily on the season’s weather, and we know all too well that we can’t count on Mother Nature in that department.

For further reading about horticulture issues go to the University of Minnesota Extension website http://www1.extension.umn.e du/garden/yard-garden/> Local Master Gardeners will answer your questions or direct you to further information if you call 218-444-7916, a voice mail service provided by these volunteers. Leave your name, number, and question and one will call you.