Confession time… When I started gardening, I would buy seeds without looking at the packets. Then, I would get home and guess how I should grow the plants. Starting plants ahead of time inside? Not so much! Plant spacing? Hah! Sun? Shade? Seriously…. I didn’t really know what all the words on the seed packet meant. And worse, I thought maybe I could just wing it and get my seeds to grow.
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Little did I know, not taking the time to learn this information was holding me back. I could have been much more successful earlier on if I had taken the time to get to know a seed packet. I just know you are not going to make the same mistakes I did. To help you avoid those mistakes, let’s talk about what that jumble of information on a seed packet really means.
What's it All About?
These are some items you may find on the seed packet, whether it’s on the front or the back. Every seed company is a little bit different and may include slightly different information. There may be very little information (in which case, you will have to be a detective). Or, if you are lucky, you might get an encyclopedia on the seed packet. Either way, take the time to follow the directions for better results in your garden.
Let’s take a look:
Name of plant:
Generally, it will tell you the common name and variety or cultivar. It’s important to note the variety or cultivar to make sure that you are picking a plant that has the characteristics that you are interested in. For example, there are a lot of kinds of peppers. It would be important to look to see if the variety of pepper you choose is mild or hot, depending on your tastes and how you want to use it. You may also see the botanical, or Latin name on the package.
The price of the packet of seeds usually is seen on the front, but depending on the company, may appear on the back.
Generally, the packet will show how many seeds or the weight of seeds that are in the packet.
Somewhere on the packet, there is usually a description of the plant. It may tell you about the taste or how the plant looks or performs. It gives you a quick snapshot of what you are getting.
The seed packet will tell you what type of seed you are getting. I love heirloom seeds that can be saved year after year. Find out more about the differences between all of the seed types here.
Planting and care instructions:
This may be the most important information on the seed packet. Depending on the brand and seed, it may include the following instructions:
Direct sow means that you would be able to plant the seeds directly in the ground after the last frost date. Sometimes, it is recommended that you start seedlings indoors. Read more about which seeds I recommend you start indoors here.
When to plant for your region:
Sometimes there is a map that shows which months to plant based on your region. This is based on the average last frost date for each region. This is not very specific, so it may be beneficial to verify a more specific date at a website such as the Farmers Almanac. Just keep in mind that even these dates are estimates. A frost can still occur even if it's past your average last frost date. Keep an eye on the weather forecast for your region.
Planting depth is important for germination. If a seed only needs to be planted at ¼”, you can sprinkle a dusting of dirt over the seeds. Some seeds need to be sown 1-2” under the ground for successful germination. To measure planting depth, you can use a tool like this.
All seeds start small. As they grow, they will need room to spread out. Make sure to give them the recommended amount of space between plants to allow for maximum production. Use a tool like this to help you with even plant spacing.
How tall the plant will grow:
This is especially important with plants that may be competing for light. You don’t want to plant a taller growing plant in a spot that would shade out a shorter growing plant.
Days to germination or days to emerge:
This is important whether you start your seeds indoors or direct sow. When you start seeds indoors, you need to take into account the time it takes to germinate based on when you want to transplant them into the garden. If seeds take two weeks to germinate, you will have to start them earlier than seeds that only take three days to germinate.
Days until harvest/Days to Maturity:
This will give you a rough estimate of how long it will take for a vegetable to fruit or a flower to bloom. The seed packet doesn’t take into account your location or if you started the seed indoors or direct-sowed it in the garden. If you direct-sow a seed, days to harvest or maturity will be counted from after the seed germinates in the ground. If you started the seeds indoors, the days to harvest or maturity will be counted from when you transplant the plant into the ground.
Just keep in mind that everyone has a different idea of what maturity means. This number will give you a rough idea of when you will be harvesting. It can also help you with succession planting by allowing you to plant plants with different harvest dates so that you are not harvesting everything at one time.
When to thin (if necessary):
Sometimes a seed packet will give you a thinning schedule. For example, it may say, “thin to 6 inches apart when 2 inches tall.” This simply means that if you direct-sowed a seed, you will want to make sure that the seedlings have enough space in between. When the seedlings reach about 2 inches, you will pull out any extras that are between plants so that you end up with seedlings 6 inches apart. Each plant may have a different requirement.
When to transplant (if necessary):
If the seed packet recommended starting seeds indoors, it should also give you an idea of when to transplant the seedlings. It will usually say you should transplant after the last danger of frost.
The package should state whether the plant needs full sun, partial sun or shade. It may even give you the number of hours of sunlight required.
Optimal Growing Conditions:
Some of the packages will be very specific about growing conditions. Some things that may be mentioned are: the optimal soil temperature, the best type of soil (sandy, loam, etc.), and any special care instructions. It may even give fertilizer requirements. To learn more about fertilizer, take a look at this post.
Annual, Perennial, etc.:
Especially for flowers, the packet will tell you if it’s an annual or perennial (annual – you have to plant every year. Perennial – comes back year after year).
Packed for date:
The packed for date shows the month and year that the seeds were packed to be sold by. Seeds can last longer than one season depending on how they are stored as well as the variety of the seed. Take a look at this post to learn more about checking seed viability and if you can use your old seeds.
Some of the packages will have a symbol that shows a container. That means that the seeds will do well in a container garden.
That’s a lot of information for a little seed packet. Like I said, not all companies include every single item. You will see differences depending on where you buy your seeds. Hopefully, after reviewing these items, reading a seed packet makes a little more sense to you.