Before you go to the store to buy seeds for your garden, you need to learn to read and understand a seed packet. The terminology on that little packet of seeds can be so confusing. I’ve broken down what’s included on a seed packet so you can purchase the best seeds for your garden.
What’s On a Seed Packet
First, there are often many different things on a seed packet. And not all seed packets will contain the same information.
The front of the packet usually contains the name of the seed, the variety (cultivar), some have the Latin name, and many times a picture of the vegetable.
Sometimes seed packets that you order don’t contain a picture because there is usually a picture of that particular variety online or in the catalog you order from. However, if you are buying seeds from a display at the store, they most likely contain a picture.
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I personally would be hesitant to buy a seed packet without seeing what the variety looks like first. I want to know what to expect from the plants. Just the other day I received a catalog in the mail with hand-drawn illustrations of each variety. While interesting, I have no plans to order from them. I want to know what my fruits and vegetables will look like when full grown.
Most of the seed packets will also display the number of seeds in the packet or the weight of the seeds on the front.
The back of the packet often contains a description of the variety including flavor notes, color, and sometimes even a brief history or a recipe.
The back also contains planting information and usually a sell by date or a date the seeds were packaged. Many times the packet will contain information about what to expect and when to harvest the plant for the best quality. And any warranty information or guarantees are also included on the back.
Breaking Down a Seed Packet
Let’s break down what you can expect to find on the back of each seed packet. Remember, different companies include different things so not all of these items may appear on your packet.
The description on the seed packet contains information relating to the variety. It will usually tell the color of the variety, any disease resistance, whether the seed is hybrid, organic, etc. (We’ll talk a bit more about those terms in a minute.)
On seed packets sold in retail stores, there is usually a description. However, seeds ordered from catalogs generally don’t contain that info. It’s hard to fit all the necessary information on a small seed packet so they expect you to refer to the seed catalog for that information. The description in the catalog is usually far more detailed than what could be included on a seed packet anyway.
If you aren’t familar with growing plants from seed, the terminology can be a bit confusing. These descriptions should help you sort out what these terms mean.
- Open-pollinated means the seed will produce plants genetically similar to the parent plant. You can save seeds from year to year and the fruit or vegetable will look just like they did in previous years.
- Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation.
- Hybrid plants are created when two open-pollinated varieties are crossed to form a new variety of the same plant. If you save the seeds, the plant may not grow to look like the plants from previous years and the fruits may be inferior. Please note that hybrid is NOT the same as GMO!
For more information on the difference between these terms, read Hybrid vs. Open-Pollinated Seeds: What’s the Difference.
- AAS means the variety was a winner of the All-America Selections Award. This award is given to varieties that perform consistently well across a large range of climates and conditions.
- Non-GMO means that the company does not knowingly buy or sell genetically modified seeds or plants.
- Organic means that the seeds are gathered from plants grown in certified organic conditions as outlined under the USDA National Organic Program.
Understanding the Planting Instructions on a Seed Packet
Seed packets will tell you how to plant the seeds. And this is probably the most important part. This information includes whether you should start the seeds indoors or whether they can be (or should be) started directly in the ground.
This information includes how deep to plant the seeds as well as how far apart they should be planted. If the plants should be thinned later, this is usually also stated on the seed packet. I definitely recommend reading and following these instructions.
The seed packet will also likely indicate whether the seeds should be planted in full sun, partial sun, or shade. If this information is not on the packet, it usually means that the seeds need full sun (a minimum of 8 hours) to grow properly.
Understanding When to Plant Your Seeds
Another important piece of information on the seed packet is WHEN to plant your seeds. Some seeds need to be planted in the spring or fall for a proper harvest. Other vegetables can’t handle any amount of frost. They must be planted after your last frost in the spring and harvested before your first frost in the fall.
Your seed packet should give the optimum time to plant for your area. Many include a map of the United States divided by color. You can find your region and use the provided key to find the best time to plant your seeds.
Understanding Germination Days & Days to Harvest
The “days to germination” is how long it takes the seed to sprout. This is usually given as a range. For example, super Gourmet Blend Lettuce from Territorial Seeds lists that it takes 2-15 days to germinate.
The reason for the range is because of how long it takes a seed to germinate varies by temperature and moisture. If you plant the lettuce outside in early spring, it will most likely take longer to germinate than it will if started indoors in your warm house at the same time.
If you don’t use an entire seed packet (and you most likely won’t) the seeds can be stored until next year. Usually, the germination rate will decline slightly but the majority of the seeds will still be viable. I just plant a few extras when I am planting older seeds.
Learn: How to Properly Store Seeds so they will usable for a few years.
What to Expect From Your Seeds
Many seed packets will also tell you what you can expect as the seeds grow. Information such as how many fruits or vegetables you can expect to harvest or how tall the plant will be at maturity is often included.
If this information is missing, it may be helpful to research the variety once you get home with the seeds so that you know how many to plant. If you plant an entire packet of lettuce at one time, you will probably have enough lettuce to feed the whole neighborhood!
You also want to be sure that you know how tall the plant grows so that you don’t accidentally shade lower growing plants. Always plant taller crops on the north side of your garden.
Once you understand the terminology on a seed packet, reading that information will be very helpful. You can use that information to choose the best seeds for your backyard garden.