This is my second year purchasing seed for the garden. Last year I was pretty disorganized, buying seed at whim from random sources and never really paying attention to anything but the plant variety. Results were about as haphazard as my selection technique.
This year I’ve made a concerted effort to be more responsible about my seed selections and make better, well educated choices. This included getting to know what to look for on the seed packets a little better. There is a lot of information packed onto those little envelopes carrying your culinary future, but what does it all mean? How is it relevant to us?
Check out the three examples below of typical seed packets, then I’ll break down what each line means and why it’s important to you.
How to read your Seed Packs
Pretty straight forward, right? All seed packs should have the distributor’s name and, likely, their contact information prominently displayed on the seed pack. It’s valuable to know who you are doing business with and how to get in touch with them should there be a problem.
Keep in mind, the distributor on the pack may not be the company that grew, cleaned and saved the seeds. Commercial seeds are collected from large growers who harvest, clean and test their seed for quality before they enter a network of distributors. We recommend looking for small heirloom and non-GMO seed companies that grow and distribute their own seed. Local non-GMO seed growers are even better. With companies like Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta owning a huge majority of the seed market, it pays to be cautious about who you get your seed from.
Every seed packet will have the name of the plant for that particular seed. It is common to see both the common name and the botanical name for the plant on the seed pack. The common name is important as it is how most people will recognize the plant and is usually either descriptive based or cultivator based (i.e. Mary Robinson’s German Bicolor Tomato or Yellow Lemon Drop Pepper). A single plant may be known by several common names. The botanical name is the latin scientific name for the plant and, unlike common names, is unique to that specific variety. For example: the Lemon Drop Pepper is also known as Aji Lemon, Aji amarillo, amarillo chili or ají escabeche but the botanical name is always Capsicum baccatum.
Plant descriptions on seed packs can be short and to the point, or longer and bordering on poetic. Some read like a wine tasting with flavor descriptions like “slightly citrus-y” and “uncomplicated”.
The description should give you some sense of what kind of plant the seed will grow into including growth type and height, fruit color and size, leaf or flower shapes and flavor of the edible portions. It could sometimes include a country of origin or backstory in the case of heirloom varieties.
Things to look for:
- Annual, perennial, or biannual
- Seed type – organic, open pollinated, hybrid, heirloom
- Description of plant – leaves, edges, flavor, color
- Determinate or indeterminate growth habit
Potentially more important than anything else, especially with new varieties, are the planting instructions. This will offer valuable information from the grower explaining what your plant will want to be healthy. It will address things like soil composition, sunlight requirements, seed spacing, planting depth, watering preferences as well as when to start your seed.
The instructions may also offer some kind of guideline of growth rate with days-to-sprout estimates and days-to-harvest.
Things to look for:
- When to sow (early spring, again in the fall)
- How to sow (direct sow or start seeds and transplant)
- Planting depth
- Seed spacing
- Thinning requirements
Most of our plants will have slightly different needs based largely on their prime season. The seed pack should specify some basics like sun exposure and watering needs. But it may also offer additional information like type of soil, adaptability, or other special considerations like staking or trellising.
Things to look for:
- Water requirements
- Soil requirements
- Sun requirements
- Special considerations – stake talk plants to prevent wind damage
- Adapted to containers – large fruit / small space
Seed companies that sell certified organic seed are required by law to show that certification on the packet. Organic seeds defined, means seeds that are untreated, or treated only with allowed substances found on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Certified Organic seed is produced by a certified organic grower, so it has not been exposed to any chemicals throughout the growth in the field, the harvesting of the seed, and processing. Certified organic seed varieties are, by definition, GMO-free. The Organic Seed Alliance maintains a list of Sources of Organic Seeds.
Check out the Safe Seed Resource List for a comprehensive list of safe seed suppliers by state.
Seed quantities can be measured in seed count or by weight. Most companies show a seed count range or minimum quantity for smaller seed like tomato, lettuces and carrots. Larger seeds are easier to sort and usually have exact seed counts. Doing some simple math with seed count and germination rate percentages, you can get an idea of how many successful sprouts to expect from a given pack of seed.
The lot number (or batch number) allows the seed grower and distributor to track specific segments of seed inventory. If there is a problem with your seed, this designation allows the distributor to track where the seed came from and address the problem. For the most part, this will mean nothing to the average consumer unless they have to contact the seed company with a complaint.
The date printed on the seed packet is important because there is a shelf-life for seed. Though there are ways to increase that shelf life, most seed should be used in the year it was intended. Usually shown as “Packed for” or “Sell by” dates, these will give you an indication of how old the seed is. When collecting seed or using your seed over several seasons, this is handy information to have. Age will definitely affect germination rates, so if you have older seed you might want to do your own germination testing to make sure the seed is still viable.
Federal regulation requires regular testing of seed germination rates for commercial seed and requires those companies to keep hard records of germination rates to prove that they meet federal standards. Seeds should be tested every 15 months (minimum) to prove seed viability. Germination rates are usually shown as a percent of total, giving you an expectation of how many seeds should be successful in a given batch.
The Federal Minimum Germination Rates for most common seeds:
|Plant Seed||% (Minimum Germination Rate)|
|Spinach, New Zealand||40|
Every seed packet is different and the examples here are just a few of the packets we have on hand to use as samples. Many of us don’t look beyond the company and plant name when selecting seed packs, but it’s handy to know what all the rest of that information is for and how to use it. Hopefully, this guide will give you the knowledge and confidence to read just a little closer next time you pick up seed somewhere.
What do you look for when buying seed?
Which is the most important factor for you: a trusted company, certified organic, non-GMO, heirloom variety?
Let us know in the comments below.
Terra Mater Gardens says
Nice article, I was googling proper seed package requirements and came across this one. Its good to see the people informing others. Keep up the good work!
Dave Creech says
Thanks! Doing our part to close the knowledge gap…most of this stuff used to be common knowledge.