Let’s define some gardening terms

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Mark Twain

There is a huge difference between the actual definitions of some words and the common usage of the same.  Everyone is guilty of using terms based on commonly understood definitions occasionally or they are someone no one else can stand to be around.  Few things get a patronizing dismissal from me faster than someone who is always correcting others over semantics.  If everyone in a conversation is actually clear about the subject, you don’t get to “win” the debate by demanding everyone be literal or by doing linguistic somersaults.  Does the migration of a word’s definition contribute significantly to the degradation of the language?  I’ll leave that question to be answered by someone else.

That said, for the sake of clarity and growth, let’s have a look at some terms that are regularly used in gardening and growers’ circles.  

Soil: The Soil Science Glossary defines soil as (i) The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants. (ii) The unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the Earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of genetic and environmental factors of: climate (including water and temperature effects), and macro- and microorganisms, conditioned by relief, acting on parent material over a period of time. A product-soil differs from the material from which it is derived in many physical, chemical, biological, and morphological properties and characteristics.

Soil Taxonomy says Soil is a natural body comprised of solids (minerals and organic matter), liquid, and gases that occurs on the land surface, occupies space, and is characterized by one or both of the following: horizons, or layers, that are distinguishable from the initial material as a result of additions, losses, transfers, and transformations of energy and matter or the ability to support rooted plants in a natural environment.

I got both of these from the NRCS website.  

The word is commonly used to mean the living, bacteria laden medium in which plants grow as opposed to…

Dirt: earth or soil, especially when loose.  (dictionary.com)

When growing the term is most often used to describe the substance soiling something as in Puck has dirt all over his face or to refer to a growing medium that is dead and useless. 

The entire rest of the english speaking world uses dirt interchangeably with soil.

Organic matter or OM: Wikipedia defines Organic matter  organic material or natural organic matter (NOM) as matter composed of organic compounds that has come from the remains of organisms such as plants and animals and their waste products in the environment.  

This is consistent with the common usage and leads us to…

Humus: (the love of the gardener’s life) defined by good old Merriam-Webster as  a brown or black complex variable material resulting from partial decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of soil.

The important part is the second part.  Humus is broken down or partially decayed plant and animal matter.  And it makes soil fabulous.

Chemical: Adj. (Cambridge) of, ​involved with, ​relating to, or made by using chemicals or ​chemistry: OR Noun. any ​basicsubstance that is used in or ​produced by a ​reactioninvolvingchanges to ​atoms or molecules.

So a chemical is pretty much ANYTHING, including water.  Here’s the rub: no one has ever intended to imply they have grown something without water.  Nothing can be grown without chemicals.  So, it stands to reason and play out in actuality that claims of “chemical-free” anything are referring to the common understanding of chemical as synthetic chemicals.  The equivocation of the two is absurd.

Heirloom: Heirloom seeds and the resulting stock are always open-pollinated and produce mostly true to the parent plant.  This means you can save the seeds and grow more of the same.  Some people use the term to reference seed stock that has also been passed down for some amount of time or is a certain age.  Heirlooms are generally but not always selected for taste and hardiness as opposed to uniformity and ability to withstand the rigors of shipping.

Hybrid: According to the University of Illinois,crossing specific parent plants produces a hybrid seed (plant) by means of controlled pollination. These hybrid seeds are often called “F1” or “F1 hybrids.”  

Hybrid seed does not produce true to parent plant but has often time been bred for uniformity and disease resistance.  Controlled pollination is a way to achieve plant sexual reproduction.  

Genetically modified organism (GMO) or Trans-genetically modified: The WHO defines this as derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.

These terms are used exclusively to define the introduction of genes from one species into another in a lab.

Organic:  (Merriam-Webster’s 3rd definition is the one to which a gardener refers)

a (1) :  of, relating to, or derived from living organisms <organic evolution> (2) :  of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides <organic farming> <organic produce>

b (1) :  of, relating to, or containing carbon compounds (2) :  relating to, being, or dealt with by a branch of chemistry concerned with the carbon compounds of living beings and most other carbon compounds

You will encounter this term used most commonly as a (2) in garden and farm resources.  This definition is an excellent example of the word synthetic being omitted in front of chemical in favor of the common understanding.  In other areas it is used to define anything derived without undisclosed manipulation.

Certified organic:  This means the USDA or other regulatory body referenced has verified the product was raised or grown by the standards they enforce regarding the environment, methods and inputs used.  It does not mean there is nothing dangerous used (snake venom is naturally occurring and not safe)  but it does mean it is at least 95% GMO free.

Conventionally grown: according to Wikipedia (which isn’t flawless but has a simple definition) Conventionally grown is an agricultural term referring to a method of growing edible plants (such as fruit and vegetables) and other products. It is opposite to organic growing methods which attempt to produce without synthetic chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones) or genetically modified organisms.

Pollinator: According to the US National Park Service, a pollinator is anything that helps carry pollen from the male part of the flower (stamen) to the female part of the same or another flower (stigma). The movement of pollen must occur for the the plant to become fertilized and produce fruits, seeds,and young plants. Some plants are self-pollinating, while others may be fertilized by pollen carried by wind or water. Still other flowers are pollinated by insects and animals, such as bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, birds, flies and small mammals, including bats.  

This term is usually used in reference to insects but, as you can see, humans can be pollinators and in China, where an attempt to kill off nuisance birds killed the bees, they are.  

Sustainable:  The Oxford dictionary defines this as able to be maintained at a certain rate or level, conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources or able to be upheld or defended.  

The ability of a system to continue without outside inputs and/or without degradation of the biome is how I think of this term after reading many books on the subject.  

Regenerative Agriculture:  a sub-sector practice of organic farming designed to build soil health or to regenerate unhealthy soils. (Wikipedia)

This is the goal.  And it is not just for farmers.  Anytime the soil is genuinely improved, not just pumped full of synthetic NPK fertilizer, you are practicing this.  

N P K fertilizer: These letters represent nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

For a while these were considered what was required for a plant to grow roots, leaves and produce a harvest.  This has since been found woefully inadequate for total plant health, strength and nutrition but continues to be the system by which many additives are labeled.  This term has come to represent the reductionist view of farming in regenerative ag circles.

Pesticide: Oxford defines this as a substance used for destroying insects or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants or to animals.

Salt, bleach, essential oils, glyphosate…these are all pesticides.  This term includes insecticides (kills insects etc), herbicides (kills plants) and fungicides (you guessed it).  In common usage it is usually referencing synthetic substances but should be used to describe anything you are using to kill.  The broad term is biocide. The suffix -cide means “a killer of.”

Insect control

Insect control

I hope this is helpful.  I have a magnet on my refrigerator that says Count Chemicals, not Calories.  Yes, I know it is not correct literally but the point is counting calories is silly and pointless.  The biocides we ingest are of greater concern (and the type of calorie is all that matters) I’ve explained to the kids about chemicals but I am not willing to ignore the sentiment over semantics.  

Suggested reading

Your seed catalogs are starting to arrive so now is the time to get a fantastic resource to help you grow.  

I recommend The Heirloom Life Gardener as a point of first reference.  It is full of good information and well formatted.

It is sometimes available on www.abebooks.com used for less.

I also love Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham, which is a pleasant read because it is conversational in addition to being full of useful information.

My husband regularly uses The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible. He is on his second copy because he left one out at the garden in the rain.

You’ll notice I send you to Amazon regularly.  I highly recommend you actually go through http://www.smile.amazon.com to make your purchases.  There is no fee to use this address, it still takes you to Amazon but it allows you to choose a charity and then sends a percentage of the money you spend to that group.  

Love from the farm

Love from the farm

Happy eating, Katy

3 thoughts on “Let’s define some gardening terms

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