Like every specialty, landscaping has its own lingo that can get confusing when you’re not used to it. If you’re thinking about hiring a landscaper or planning a DIY project, learning basic landscaping terminology will help you get exactly the look you want.
General Landscaping Terms
Hardscape: non-living features such as pavement, walls, planters, gazebos, rockeries, and ponds. Hardscape elements give structure and depth to the landscape while providing support for plants.
Landscaping fabric: synthetic or organic fabric that blocks sunlight, but lets water through. It’s typically placed around garden plants to inhibit weed growth while still allowing water to reach the plants’ roots.
Natural landscaping: also called native gardening, this approach to landscaping focuses on native plants to minimize the need for additional fertilizers, watering, and other care. One of the most common forms is xeriscaping, which focuses on using drought-tolerant native plants in desert climates.
Site plan: a detailed bird’s-eye-view map of your landscape that shows important features such as buildings, paths, and planting beds. Creating a site plan lets you experiment with landscaping ideas and ensure everything will fit together before you start planting.
Softscape: living landscape features such as flowers, grass, and trees. This often includes soil and mulch. Because these elements change with the seasons, they bring a sense of life and flow to the landscape.
Soil test: a landscaper might conduct this test to check your soil’s pH and nutrient levels. With this information, they can decide what soil amendments, such as compost or peat moss, should be added to the soil to make it more hospitable for your plants.
Plant Care Terms
Annual: a plant that reaches maturity, then dies completely in one growing season. Most die after the first frost. In frost-free climates, some annuals act as perennials, living for multiple seasons.
Barrier plants: plants with thorns, spiky leaves or other deterrents that dissuade people and animals from crossing. They’re often used in place of fences to keep neighborhood kids and dogs from entering an area.
Biennial: a plant that lives for two growing seasons. The first year, it produces leaves and roots, then goes dormant for the winter. The next year, it produces flowers, then dies.
Compost: nutrient-rich soil formed from decayed organic matter, such as leaves or kitchen scraps. It’s used to improve soil with a low nutrient content or poor drainage.
Drainage: the rate at which water passes down through the soil. Soil type affects drainage, with sandy and loamy soils draining faster than clay types. Poor soil drainage causes a variety of problems both for plants and hardscaping, but you can improve drainage by adding compost, peat moss or other organic material.
Edging: a clearly defined border between separate areas of the landscape, such as the lawn and flowerbeds. Usually made from metal or plastic strips, masonry or wood, edging helps keep grass and flowers from spreading beyond their respective sections.
Frost line: the level down to which the soil moisture freezes in winter. Because frozen ground expands and can damage structures buried in it, the frost line affects the ideal depth of structural foundations and supports.
Grading: creating a slope, usually by adding or moving soil. Land is typically graded downward from building foundations to direct water away. You might also re-grade a steep slope to make it more level and easier to maintain.
Mulch: a layer of material applied over the soil to hold in moisture and keep down weeds. Grass clippings, wood chips, pine straw, stone, and rubber are among the most popular mulches, but the right type depends on your landscaping needs.
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Perennial: a plant that produces flowers or fruits year after year. The leaves and stems might die after the frost, but will sprout again in spring.
Transplant shock: a condition that causes transplanted plants to wilt, turn yellow or lose leaves. Symptoms can take from a day to several weeks to appear, but are usually temporary. Although not always avoidable, correct site selection, planting, and watering minimize the damage.
Underplanting: a method of planting smaller plants under trees and large shrubs to give the space more dimension and color than only soil or turf would.
Lawn Care Terms
Aeration: a process that creates tiny holes or slices in compacted soil to allow more air, water, and nutrients to reach plant roots. It’s usually done with a handheld tool.
Dethatching: the process of removing the layer of mostly dead organic matter, called thatch, that accumulates between green grass and the soil. Because thatch inhibits the lawn’s growth, it’s removed with a dethatching rake or machine in spring.
Lime: a mineral added to soil to increase its acidity, freeing nutrients for your grass and giving you a greener, lusher lawn. When needed, it’s usually added in early fall.
Sod: a section of soil held together by grass and roots. It’s often sold in squares or rolls that are used to start new lawns.
Turf: grass that’s regularly mowed and maintained, such as a lawn.
Arbor: a U-shaped, open-framework arch used to provide support for climbing plants and shade any plants under it.
Gazebo: a covered structure, usually with open sides and a solid roof, used to shelter seating areas and hot tubs, giving you a comfortable place to spend time away from the house.
Pergola: an open-framework roof supported by sturdy posts. While often used for climbing plants, its primary purpose is to define and lightly shade a seating area.
Privacy screen: a feature, such as a fence or hedgerow, designed to obscure or block the view into an area. Some let light and air flow through, while others are completely solid.
Retaining wall: a wall built to minimize erosion and otherwise hold back soil in order to stabilize a slope. The wall can be made of wood, concrete, paving stones or bricks.
Terracing: building a series of low retaining walls up a slope to form flat areas in a staircase pattern. This reduces erosion and creates manageable planting beds.
Easement: part of your property others have the right to use for a specified purpose. It’s designed to allow public utilities workers and your neighbors to access utility lines when necessary. You can landscape your easement however you want, but that landscaping might be damaged if it interferes with someone else’s legal access.
Setback: the minimum distance from a sidewalk, property line or structure where you’re allowed to build. Because you can’t legally build on a setback, you’ll need to know where the setbacks are on your property are before you install any major hardscaping.