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Gardening Terminology

Here are definitions for some of the terms we use on the web site.


Gardening terminologySoil moisture

Soil pH

Soil quality

Soil texture


USDA Hardiness Zones


Many perennials require division every three or four years. You know when your perennial needs division when it doesnít flower as much as it use to and/or the center of the plant seems to be dieing or thinning.

Division is an easy process and an excellent means of obtaining new plants. With a shovel dig-up your perennial. Use a spade to cut through thick roots that may have spread far beyond the crown of the plant. Gently lift the perennial out of the ground. Using a sharp blade, cut the plant into several pieces, each piece should have a healthy section of the plantís crown and at least one root shoot. If the center of your perennial is dieing or thinning this portion of the plant (roots and crown) should be discarded. Plant the healthy segments immediately and generously water them. Perennials should be divided in either the spring or early fall.

Soil Moisture

Dry - Dry soil is typically found in the arid southwest United States (regions that receive less than 25 inches of rain a year). The soil cannot be crushed between your fingers, as it is too hard. Frequently it may crack. Such soil frequently is black clay or limestone rubble (caliche).

Moist (Well Drained) Soil - Except during severe drought conditions, most soil in the northeastern United States is moist. It can easily be crushed between your thumb and index finger, without sticking to you.

Marsh - Marsh is soil that is not well drained. It will frequently have standing water, even several days after a rainfall. Marshy soil will be a gray color. If the soil is underwater part of the year, but dry during other parts of the year it will be mottled gray and orange.

Soil pH

Soil pH refers to how acidic or alkaline your soil is. This is an important consideration when determining which plants will thrive in your garden and what type of soil amendments and fertilizers you may need to use.

Soil pH is measured on a scale that runs from 0 to 14. Soil that is neutral (it isnít acid or base but exactly in the middle) has a pH of 7. Soil that is acid will have a pH less than 7. Alkaline, also referred to as basic, has a pH greater than 7. While not impossible, it is extremely rare to have a soil with a pH lower than 4 or higher than 8. It is also most unusual to have soil that is neutral.

Acid Soil - Soil with a pH less than 7. Most soils east of the Mississippi River and in the Pacific Northwest are acidic. A slightly acidic soil (pH between 6.3 and 6.8) is best for most plants. If soil is too acid (less than a pH of 6) it is difficult for plants to absorb many types of nutrients and minerals from the soil.

Neutral Soil - Neutral soil has a pH of 7. While not impossible, it is not common to have a soil with a pH of exactly 7. Typically the pH will be slightly acid (lower than 7) or slightly basic (greater than 7).

Alkaline Soil - Basic or alkaline soil has a pH greater than 7. Basic soil is common in drier climates, such as in the southwest United States. Soil with high salt or sodium levels, which are sometimes found near seashores, are typically very basic.

Soil Quality

Rich Soil - Rich soil has the following characteristics:

It is moderately coarse and crumbles. It isnít a fine power or rocky.

It is loose, not compacted or difficult to dig into.

It has been enriched naturally or by human intervention with organic matter (humus and/or decayed leaves).

There are virtually no rocks in the soil.

The soil pH is slightly acidic, which is ideal.

Rich soil typically has many earthworms living it.

Average Soil - Average soil has the following characteristics:

It has a fine or coarse texture.

The soil may contain rocks.

It may be somewhat compacted from either foot traffic or construction equipment. Slightly compacted soil is not loose and fluffy, but rather dense and moderately difficult to dig into.

The soil pH may be either very acidic or almost neutral.

A few earthworms live in average soil, but they are not abundant.

Poor Soil - Poor soil has the following characteristics:

The soil may be very light, porous and loose. The soil may be so light that wind erosion may be a serious concern.

Pieces of partially decayed plant material may be in the soil, even at depths several feet below the surface. This is common in Alaska, Minnesota, Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin.

The soil may be severely compacted, making it extremely difficult to dig into.

The soil pH may be moderately to strongly alkaline.

Virtually no earthworms or other organisms live in the soil.

Soil Texture

Soil texture considers the relative amounts of different sized mineral particles present in your soil. Soil contains a mix of different particle sizes and is described by the particle size that dominates itsí mixture.

Sandy Soil - Sandy soil is comprised mostly of very large particles. Sometimes the particles are large enough to see. Between these large particles there are relatively large spaces that allow water and nutrients to drain quickly. As such, sandy soil is frequently dry, nutrient poor soil. When it is dry it easily forms dust clouds. It may be necessary to fertilize sandy soil more frequently than clay or silt soil. When you rub the soil between your fingers it will feel very gritty.

Silty Soil - Silty soil is comprised primarily of soil particles that are larger than clay particles, but smaller than sand particles. As such, itsí characteristics are intermediate between clay and sand soil. It feels smooth between your fingers. Any grittiness is very fine. It is somewhat difficult to cultivate when either dry or wet. It doesnít warm-up as quickly as sandy soil in the spring. Silty soil may be dusty when dry.

Loam Soil - Loam is the ideal soil texture. It has a crumbly feel and a chocolate color. It smells earthy and sweet, as it is high in organic matter. It doesnít dry out too fast, yet it isnít soggy. It is made up of a balance of sand, clay and silt.

Clay Soil - Clay soil is comprised primarily of particles that are too small to see. When dry, clay soil cracks and becomes very hard. Although it absorbs moisture very slowly, once wet it does not drain quickly. Consequently, it tends to become water logged during rainy periods. It feels smooth between your fingers and sticky when wet. It is slow to warm-up in the spring. Never work in clay soil when it is wet, as this will result in the soil particles becoming even smaller and more compact.

Sun Exposure

Full Sun - Eight hours or more of direct sunlight.

Partial Sun - The term partial shade is used to describe several different conditions. Each of the following circumstances may be described as partial shade:

Sunlight shines through a canopy of trees or a lath, creating confetti-like shadows on the ground below.

For a few hours every day an area may receive direct sunlight. However, as the sun moves across the sky tall trees or structures block the sun, creating a shadow.

Tall buildings cast shadows over an area for most, if not all, of the day. Nevertheless, nothing is blocking the sunlight directly overhead (common in small city gardens).

Shade - Virtually no direct sunlight. If you step into a shade area on a sunny day you must pause to let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Typically found in thick forests.

USDA Hardiness Zones

A region of the world, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), that generally does not get colder than a defined average annual minimum temperature. For example, Zone 5 typically does not get colder than Ė20 to Ė10 degrees F.

Select your region of the United States, Canada or Europe.


North Midwest



South Midwest




Eastern Canada

Western Canada


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Last modified: February 08, 2004