If you are going to have a vegetable garden there is one thing for sure-you are going to need seeds! I mean sure-you can buy those pre-started plants at your local nursery, big box store or corner plant stand. . . but there are some things that you just have to plant directly in ground (carrots, beets, turnips) and eventually you are going to want to have a particular plant that your box store doesn’t have.
There is a LOT of information on your average seed packet-and it can be rather confusing for a new gardener. It’s actually pretty amazing how much data they can fit on a very small 3″ x 4″ package!
Of course to make it all fit they use some standard terminology and icons without really going into a lot of explanation.
Let’s start with the front of the package:
Company Name: Seeds of Change
Type of Plant: Tomato
Cultivar or Variety: Amish Paste
Net Weight: 115mg
Additional info: Heirloom & Organic
Some of this is very self explanatory. I mean really, I don’t need to explain the company name or the type of plant-and the weight is for their own standardization when packing the seeds, as well as to give you an idea of value when you are comparing two brands or package sizes of like seed.
So what about the rest?
Cultivar or Variety: Amish Paste
This tells you exactly which TYPE of tomato it is. There is usually more detailed information about it on the back of the packet or in your seed catalog.
Heirloom: Just like grandma’s heirloom silver has been passed down from generation to generation, an heirloom seed is from a variety that has been passed down and grown over and over. Although there is not (as far as I know) a regulated definition of the term when it comes to seed-usually you can be assured that it is an older, more flavorful variety. It also means that the seeds from your plant should breed true-so if you saved seeds from this heirloom tomato and planted them you should get the exact same kind of tomato.
USDA Organic: This means that the plant that the seed came from was grown under the standards required to be certified by the USDA as organic, therefore making the seed itself organic. It also means that the seed could not be treated with any substances that would make it ineligible for the organic certification. Some non organic seeds are sold treated or coated.
Now on to the real treasure trove of information-the back of the seed package.
Let’s start by going from the top to the bottom:
They all have this somewhere. You probably don’t really care unless you have some sort of problem with your seeds and need to tell the company what lot number it was in.
This is similar to the “sell by” date on your milk, or your canned goods. The Federal Seed Act in the United States sets germination standards for vegetable seeds in interstate commerce. The company is basically promising that as long as the seed is sold by the date specified that it will meet those germination standards.
Does it mean that the seeds magically stop growing when you hit that date? No, of course not! Just like-despite what my husband thinks-the milk does not suddenly become undrinkable on the “sell by” date!
Seeds can continue to germinate YEARS after that date, but depending on a variety of factors including the temperature and moisture at which they were stored. Just realized that as time goes on the percentage of seeds that actually germinate in the package may go down and plant accordingly.
Somewhere on your seed packet you will find a description that gives you the specific characteristics of the cultivar/variety. Some packets will have a nice paragraph like you see above, others will just have a few lines. It should give you an idea of the color of the vegetable (if that’s important) and the taste, growing and/or storage characteristics. Basically whatever makes this plant different than others.
Here are some phrases or terms that may be included in the description:
Indeterminate / Determinate : These phrases are used to describe tomato plants.
A determinate plant means that somewhere in the plant’s genetic code there is a “determined” height. It will only grow so tall and then it will stop growing. All of it’s fruit should set and mature within a fairly short time frame–about two weeks. So if you want to grow a whole bunch of tomatoes, have them all ripen at the same time and then indulge in a huge canning session you may want to consider determinate plants.
An indeterminate plant (sometimes referred to as “vining”)will just continue to grow up and up or, if you don’t physically stake or tie it up-on and on. You don’t have to let it turn into the tomato plant that ate the garden either-if you pinch off the growing tip at the top of the plant that will stop it’s growth. Either way it will continue to set fruit and ripen until a frost kills it! So if you want to keep having tomatoes over time to eat fresh, this may be what you are looking for.
Vine / Bush: These phrases are typically used to describe beans, squash and cucumber plants.
A vine variety (called “pole” for beans) will grow out long from a central point. The beans naturally try to find something to grow straight up (the same pinching off technique you use for tomatoes can work here). Squash and cucumbers naturally vine out along the ground.
Vines can be trained to grow up fences and a variety of trellises-sometimes with a bit of tying and encouraging, other times naturally. Most vining squash and cucumbers will also set down additional roots along the way if they are left to lay on the ground. This can help them take up extra water-good in a dry climate.
Pole beans-like indeterminate tomatoes-will continue to set and ripen over a long period of time until frost kills them.
Bush varieties are more compact and take up a fairly set amount of space (usually specified on the seed packet). Bush beans-like determinate tomatoes-will have all the beans mature in a fairly short time frame.
Annual: This means that a plant will only live for one year. You plant it, harvest it and then the next year you must plant it again.
Perennial: This means that a plant will come back year after year (if you are in the correct zone for that plant). Daffodils are perennials. You plant the bulbs once and then they come back every year. Some herbs, like chives, are perennials.
Special note: We have quite a few plants that we grow as annuals that, if grown in the tropics, would be perennials. Peppers and tomatoes for example could live YEARS if you were in the tropics. Most of us are not-and if you are you need to research growing under those conditions! There are also herbs that are perennial in some parts of the US, but annual in others.
Hybrid: There is a lot of confusion about hybrids. A hybrid simply means that you cross 2 different parents to get a child plant with specific characteristics–but that child probably won’t breed true. You do not want to practice seed saving on a hybrid.
Let me use a dog example to make this clearer. A Labradoodle is the cross between a Labrador and a poodle. When you breed those two dogs together you get a dog with a pretty regular set of characteristics that we call a Labradoodle. However, if you breed two Labradoodles together you are not necessarily going to get a Labradoodle-you may get something that is more poodle or more Labrador depending on which way the genetic dice roll.
Now if you took the puppies that were most like the initial Labradoodle and bred them, and kept doing that process over and over until you got dogs where every time they had puppies you had a labradoodle, then you’d have a new breed.
So a hybrid is sort of the first step to a new variety-except that it’s just easier to keep producing the hybrid than to go through the process of developing a new variety (or maybe for some reason they can’t get it to come up stable). Why buy a hybrid over an heirloom? Well it may have specific characteristics you are looking for, like disease resistance.
A hybrid CAN BE ORGANIC. If both of the parent plants are organic and they are crossed they can make an organic hybrid.
Propagation: How to start the plant. It will tell you if you can start it ahead of time in pots (some plants DO NOT like to be transplanted) and how long before it can be planted outside you can do that. It will tell you when the plant can be planted outside.
Typical phrases are:
“As soon as the ground can be worked” –When it stops being frozen and sopping wet)
“Early spring”–When it starts feeling consistently spring like but still has cold nights)
“After last frost” or “X weeks after last frost”–After your last average frost date (just google “last frost date” and the name of your county).
“Directly in garden”–Don’t try to transplant this, it doesn’t like it.
“When ground has warmed to”–A specific temperature might be given.
“Harden off”–this is a process where you slowly get transplants used to being outside by bringing them out a few hours at a time over the course of a few days-I’ll be writing a post specifically on this process.
note: Sometimes there will also be directions for when to plant a second crop for harvest in the fall.
Soil & Water: Although the Seeds of Change packages have this listed, for most seeds you’ll have to either check online or find that information in the catalog.
Harvesting & Seed Storage: Although occasionally a seed packet or catalog will mention specifics about harvesting the actual produce it isn’t very common. And I’ve never seen anyone other than Seeds of Change specifically mention how to store the seeds.
Now let’s move on to that panel on the left hand side, which gives the specifications for physically growing the seed.
Note: although it may be in slightly different places this type of chart is standard on most seed packets. Sometimes it is more in graphic form like this:
Planting Depth: Every seed packet will have this information telling you how deep the seed goes in the ground. While you don’t have to be paranoid about this you want to get it sort of close. If like our tomato seed it’s supposed to be 1/4 inch deep and you plant it 2 inches down you probably won’t see any tomatoes. You may want to just want to bring a ruler outside to plant with you or else mark a popsicle stick with a permanent marker.
Soil Temp for Germination: Not all packets will include this information-many just rely on the “when soil warms” or “early spring” type descriptions-however if the information is listed it can be very helpful. If you need 70 degree soil and you plant it in 50 degree ground you probably won’t sprout until the soil warms up-assuming the seed doesn’t get waterlogged & rot in the meantime.
note: Germination is the act of the seed actually sprouting. Different seeds have different requirements-it’s natures way of ensuring that the seed comes up at the time at which the plant is most likely to survive!
Days to Germination: How long, under good conditions (ie the correct soil temperature and adequate moisture) it should take for you to see a sprout emerge. It may take longer if the conditions are not optimal-but if it’s supposed to germinate in a week and it’s been a month with no plant, you should probably assume you’ve had a failure and try re-seeding.
Plant Spacing: For every plant there is an optimum amount of space for them to grow in where they will not only have the physical room they need to spread out (both above and below the soil) but also have enough soil around themselves to provide the water & nutrients they need. If you crowd them too closely certain plants will not really produce for you. This seems to be especially true for root vegetables, which need the room. Spacing things too far apart is not really a problem, it’s just a waste of space.
Plant Spacing After Thinning: The standard method of planting is to plant more seeds in the ground than you need in case some don’t come up, then to “thin” your plants down to the recommended spacing. You thin by either pulling up or cutting off the plants you don’t need (I prefer cutting as it doesn’t accidentally disturb the roots of the plant you are trying to keep). Some people have trouble with this-it seems criminal to kill a perfectly healthy little plant. Be strong-your remaining plants need that room! Of course you could just plant at the recommended distance for after thinning and hope everything comes up! With today’s germination rates you are actually pretty safe that way.
Days to Maturity: How long it takes the vegetable to be at the point where you can harvest it.
note: Days to maturity is very important! If your growing season in between frosts is 90 days and you plant tomatoes that take 120 days to mature in the ground after the last frost of the spring, you will NEVER see a ripe tomato.
another note: You can extend your growing season by starting seeds inside before your last frost date and then by using season extending techniques like cold frames in the fall. Also some vegetables don’t mind a light frost, which means you may be able to plant them earlier and keep them later.
Sun: This tells generally how much sun a vegetable requires. Full sun is considered 8 full hours without shade. Partial sun and shade are the other normal designations. In general you can assume that vegetables which produce fruit are going to need full sun, leafy items might be ok in partial shade. Not much edible grows in full shade.
note: If you live in a really hot climate 8 hours of full sun may be too much for a plant. 8 hours of Texas sun in August is very different from 9 hours of Maine sun. It’s a good idea to check a gardening book specific to your area or call your cooperative extension office for advice.
Water: Not many seed packets list this-but some will give you an idea if it’s a very “thirsty” plant that requires a lot of water or not.
And that’s the basics of reading a seed package! I know it seems like a lot, but honestly-it’s all just to give you a better chance at success. Things will vary depending on exactly where you are and what your weather that particular year is. Don’t be afraid-go out and give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, try it a bit differently next time! You’ll learn and grow, I promise.
I want to thank Walmart and Seeds of Change for sponsoring this post. Seeds of Change is the country’s oldest organic seed provider and offers one of the industry’s largest selections of 100% Certified Organic vegetable, flower and herb seeds. This year is the first year Seeds of change seeds are being offered at Walmart-which I think is very exciting! In previous years I’ve always had to order mine online (which you still can).
Keep you eye out soon for a video showing you exactly HOW to start your seeds!