Puzzled by Seed Packets? Here’s How to Read Them
Beth Botts Chicago Tribune
January 27, 2008
Starting vegetable seeds at home can be rewarding in many ways: It’s cheap. You can find a much wider range of varieties in seed packets than you can as plants in garden centers in spring. And you can make sure that your food is raised without pesticides, which is better for you and the environment.
But if you are new to the seed-starting game, even choosing seeds can be confusing. Seed packets and descriptions in catalogs and Web sites may be full of flowery adjectives but omit essential facts, or they may consist of insider shorthand that seems like it requires a cryptographer. And there’s no one key: “The only standard is that there’s no standard,” says Nona Koivula, executive director of the National Garden Bureau, a trade association in Downers Grove.Here are some tips to help you crack the seed-starting code.
Get a book. Or find a comprehensive Web site. No catalog or seed packet will tell you all you need to know about growing vegetables; most make it hard for beginners by assuming you already know a lot. So have a good broad reference handy. Learn about broccoli, beans or basil in general before you try to choose a specific variety.
Know your conditions. Before you start shopping, know where you are going to plant, how much light the site gets (most vegetables require at least eight hours a day of direct sun), where you will get water and what kind of soil you have (or can get).
Hang onto the catalog. Often some essential information is in the catalog description (or on the Web site) and the rest is on the packet. You may need to refer to both.
Check definitions. Many terms and codes vary from catalog to catalog or from plant to plant. Catalog companies may have idiosyncratic codes for different methods of germination, for example.
And watch out for the slippery meaning of a phrase such as “65 days,” indicating the days until you can harvest mature fruit.
Sometimes it means 65 days after you plant the seed. But sometimes — even for a different plant in the same catalog — it may mean 65 days after you transplant seedlings that you started indoors several weeks earlier out to the garden. Descriptions usually don’t specify the meaning because catalog companies assume you know that peas and radishes are best sown outdoors but tomatoes need to be started indoors. If you have any doubt about a catalog term, call or e-mail and ask.
Don’t expect precision. Seed descriptions are fairly general. Depending on your conditions, the weather, the care you give them and many other factors, plants and fruits may be a somewhat different size than stated or not quite follow the schedule. Don’t let it throw you; as you gain experience, you’ll have more control and a better idea what to expect.
Where to Learn More
Here are some good general references on growing vegetables from seed:
“Burpee The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically” by Karan Davis Cutler (Wiley, 448 pages, $39.95)
“Vegetable Gardening: From Planting to Picking — The Complete Guide to Creating a Bountiful Garden” by Fern Marshall Bradley and Jane Courtier (Reader’s Digest, 288 pages, $32.95)
“Guide to Illinois Vegetable Gardening” by James A. Fizzell (Cool Springs Press, 272 pages, $12.95)
“Success with Seed” by Karen Park Jennings (Park Seed, 348 pages, $24.95). Order from parkseed.com or find entire contents at successwithseed.org.
National Garden Bureau fact sheets, ngb.org
Cornell University Extension vegetable Growing Guides, gardening.cornell.edu/vegetables.
University of Illinois Extension vegetable pages, unbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies.
Seed Packet Deconstructed
Here are some key terms and concepts you may encounter on vegetable seed packets or in catalog descriptions. Terms and codes are not standardized, so find the legend in each catalog or Web site and ask about anything confusing.
Bush or pole: Refers to plant habit, such as beans. Bush varieties are more compact and bushy; pole varieties are long and sprawly, requiring more support.
Cool-season: Indicates seeds will germinate and grow in cool weather in spring or fall; likely fails in summer heat.
Date: Indicates year in which producer intended seeds to be planted and grown.
Days: Generally, indicates “days to harvest.” Specific meaning varies: It may mean from when you sow seed or from when you transplant seedlings outdoors.
Determinate or indeterminate: Indicates whether plants (such as tomatoes) grow to a certain size and then stop, producing all their fruit in a short time (determinate) or grow continuously (indeterminate) and produce until frost, needing more space and support.
Direct-sow: Refers to sowing seed outdoors in the place where it will grow.
Disease resistance: Indicates whether variety has been bred to resist or tolerate certain diseases (especially of tomatoes). May be stated as a code, such as V for verticilium wilt and TMV for tobacco mosaic virus. Codes vary.
F1 hybrid: Identifies a rigorous first-generation cross between two purebred strains. Will not produce seed with the same characteristics, so you have to buy new seed each year.
Open-pollinated: Refers to plants that will produce seed with the same characteristics, allowing you to collect seed for next year.
Germination method: Indicates method for getting seeds to sprout; varies with species. May be spelled out or stated in a code or icons. Check legend.
Heirloom: Generally refers to an older variety, 50 years old or more. A wider range of flavors, sizes and shapes is available among heirloom varieties, though newer hybrids or selections may be more vigorous or disease-resistant.
Light: Indicates how much sunlight is needed. Full sun means at least eight hours a day. Half a sun usually means part sun, or about four to six hours a day. “Partial shade” is less light than “part sun.” But check legend.
Organic: Indicates seed from plants grown without herbicides or insecticides acccording to federal regulations. Not a characteristic of the plant variety.
Start indoors: Indicates seeds need to be started indoors, usually under lights, starting in late winter or early spring. Transplant outdoors several weeks later, usually after danger of frost is past. May be shown as an icon.
Treated: Indicates seeds are treated with pesticides to control disease. Organic seed should be untreated.