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Gardening terminology – sweet, slips and tip it

Jennifer Stackhouse

Jennifer Stackhouse

September 8, 2016

Like every special interest group, gardeners have their own language. They often turn up in advice from old hands and can leave new gardeners baffled. Take compost heaps: the pride of some gardeners and the bane of others. After wet winter in many parts, those who have a compost heap may find it is on the nose.

Compost bins ready for turning. Photo Ian Wintle

Compost bins ready for turning. Photo Ian Wintle

The quick fix for a soggy, smelly compost heap is to turn it. Um, what? ‘Turning the heap’ is an expression you’ll come across in gardening books, magazines, articles online and hear on talkback radio. It means aerating compost by digging and lifting composting material to let in more air. To ‘turn the heap’ the gardener literally takes a spade or fork and does just that.

If there’s space ‘turn’ the material on to an adjacent area. If the compost is in a plastic bin, use a ‘compost worm’ (a spiral pronged tool like a giant corkscrew) to churn the contents of the bin in situ or lift the bin off the compost, move it to an adjacent spot and shovel the material back in.

Another quick fix is to ‘sweeten’ the heap. No, don’t reach for a bag of sugar. ‘Sweeten’ in gardening lingo means adding lime to soil (or compost) to make it more alkaline or ‘sweeter’. As the compost heap is aerated (or turned), sprinkle a handful of lime over the decaying material. Sweet!

In the language of gardening, alkaline soils, which are soils with a pH above 7 are said to be sweet, while acidic soils, soils with a pH below 7 are said to be sour. A pH of 7 is neutral.

In mentioning pH, we’ve just collided with another piece of garden terminology. For those who can’t remember back to school chemistry, pH is a scale used to measure hydrogen ions. It interacts with gardening as the pH of soil affects plant growth.

Testing and measuring soil pH

Testing and measuring soil pH


Mistaken identity

In some cases gardening advice, especially verbal, can be misheard with disastrous consequences. One bit of advice people frequently hear incorrectly is to use a liquid seaweed tonic to help poorly growing, stressed or new plants to grow better. The brand name of one product, Seasol, is often used as the term to cover all of these tonics. So a gardener who asks what might help cure a plant that’s not thriving may be told to;

“Seasol it”.

Even if the advice is heard correctly it can be puzzling, but if it is misheard as ‘sea salt’ disaster can follow. Salt, plants and soils don’t mix.

Plant names are another minefield of mistaken identity. I was once asked on talkback radio:

“I have a cappuccino plant – can I prune it?”.

I had heard right but obviously the caller hadn’t and was calling his plant by the wrong name.

As I sat feeling totally baffled and wondering what to say, it came to me: tibouchina not cappuccino. He had a tibouchina, a purple-flowering shrub that blooms in autumn and winter. It can be pruned after flowering in late winter or spring. Problem solved and now I always think of tibouchinas as cappuccinos and smile.

Capuccino plant


Quick check

Here are a few other gardening words and expressions that may have left you confounded. ‘Take a slip’. Slip means a cutting, which in turn means a piece of a plant used to grow another plant.

‘Tip it all over’. In this context ‘tip’ is shorthand for ‘tip pruning’ and means to lightly prune a plant to remove the new growth (the growth ‘tips’) or spent flowers. The result will be a bushier, more compact plant rather than a ‘leggy’ plant, which is a fair description of a plant that’s grown long, bare stems and does look decidedly ‘leggy’.

Tip pruning

Tip pruning

[This article first appeared in TasWeekend, a supplement to The Mercury on August 20, 2016.]


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Kerry van den Berg
6 years ago

An interesting article for the novice gardener