Using Seed Packet Information to Help your Garden Grow
Gardening is a great pastime. But successful gardening takes work and it seems much more like work if your plants do poorly. The best (and happiest) gardeners I know improve their chances for success by taking the time to plan their gardens. This means deciding what they want to grow, selecting seeds carefully, planting them in the right conditions and caring for them as advised by suppliers. Making a quick pass through a seed rack in a garden center and then buying simply based on the picture and plant description is likely to lead to more effort and a less satisfying harvest than is achievable with a more careful selection. If you are prone to shortcutting seed selection, you can improve your gardening results by putting seed data to use. Here is a quick summary of some of the helpful information provided on seed packets, in catalogs, and on websites and how to interpret and use it to your advantage.
Descriptive Terms Defined
There are several terms commonly used to characterize seeds that you want to understand:
- Open-pollinated seeds have been pollinated naturally by bees or wind. Open-pollinated varieties reproduce consistently generation to generation and are the seeds of choice for seed savers.
- Heirlooms are typically open-pollinated seeds of older plant varieties. There is no single definition of an “heirloom” plant, but one that seems to make sense is origination prior to 1951 when hybrid seeds were introduced. Heirlooms are prized for various characteristics, typically flavor and appearance. They have survived for a long time, but are not likely to be as disease resistant as hybrid varieties. Heirloom seeds can be saved.
- Hybrids are the product of controlled fertilization between two different plant varieties of the same species to reproduce desirable qualities of both. F1, first generation hybrids, yield plants that are uniform and predictable based on parent characteristics. F2 or higher number hybrids are products of crossing successive hybrid generations and do not produce consistent offspring. Hence hybrids are not for seed savers. F1 hybrids are desirable however, in that they can improve a plant’s appearance, taste, disease resistance and other characteristics noted by the grower.
- Organic seeds come from parent plants grown without the use of chemical pesticides and insecticides. Non-organic seed presents small risk to seed users given the tiny quantities of chemicals present. However reduced chemical use provides a benefit to the environment and to workers on seed farms that justifies supporting organic seed growers.
- Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds are the products of external gene modification rather than natural processes, to produce specific traits, usually related to disease or insect resistance. This is a more invasive intervention than hybrid pollination, and GMO seeds are still a controversial item. They are most commonly sold to commercial growers for heavily-planted crops like corn, beets and summer squash, but are spreading into new product areas. Formal legal definitions may allow GMO seeds to be called organic if they are produced in an insecticide- and pesticide-free environment. It is wise to review specific manufacturer’s definitions of organic or look for a specific “non-GMO” notation if you have concerns about using GMO seed.
- Some seeds are noted as All American Selections. These are seed varieties that are tested and approved by an independent non-profit testing organization and judged to be superior from a growing or eating standpoint. You can check the organization out at https://all-americaselections.org/.
Type of Seed
If there is no mention of treatment on the packet, the seeds inside should be naked seeds. However there are a couple of surface modifications that are worth understanding:
- Treated seeds have been coated with fungicide or insecticide to improve germination by protecting the seed from rotting or insect attack while in the ground. Treated seeds are often distinctively colored for identification purposes.
- Pelleting refers to a coating on small, hard-to-handle seeds like lettuce, carrots and onions. The coating is usually an inert material designed to make them easier to handle and distribute in the soil. The coating may be synthetic or a natural clay. Organic pelleting meets the requirements of the NOP (National Organic Program of the USDA). Pellets absorb water quickly and split open on hydration. Pelleted seeds have a shorter shelf life than unpelleted seeds and should be planted in the year packed.
Tomatoes may be identified as Determinate or Indeterminate. Determinate plants are compact and generally don’t require any support. They set a fixed amount of fruit that ripens at about the same time, after which the plant dies down. The single harvest time is essential for mechanical harvesting, and may help the home gardener aiming for a single large harvest for canning for freezing. Indeterminate varieties produce continuously until frost. They have a vining habit and need to be supported. Their steady production over a longer period is good for enjoying fresh produce over the course of the growing season. Both have their place. Make your choice or mix and match based on your intended use.
Cucurbits, specifically cucumber and some summer squash may be identified as Gynoecious and/or Parthenocarpic. Gynoecious varieties are bred to increase the proportion of female (fruit-bearing) flowers, thus increasing yield potential. Parthenocarpic varieties set fruit without pollination. Developed mainly for greenhouse growers, they may also have benefits for backyard gardeners.
Seed growers typically offer multiple varieties of each vegetable seed they sell. An important difference between varieties is disease resistance. This may interest the new gardener and is especially valuable for experienced gardeners who can identify diseases that have been past problems. The information may be built into the variety name or listed separately. A seed’s disease resistance is summarized using one or more short abbreviations. A couple of examples for tomatoes are LB for late blight and PM for powdery mildew. There are way too many for a complete listing here, but catalogs and websites provide comprehensive lists of definitions for their products. If you have a history of fighting diseases with particular vegetables, you owe it to yourself to investigate seed options that reduce susceptibility to the diseases you have encountered.
Other Valuable Guidance
Other commonly included information doesn’t need interpretation, but is important to note. Light, height and habit requirements affect where to place specific plants within the garden. Hardiness Zone and Time to Maturity provide guidance for both spring and fall planting timing. Spacing is important, whether you grow in rows or an intensive planting arrangement in a raised bed. Soil type, planting depth, indoor germination and transplanting requirements are obviously important to success as well.
Beyond the Packet
Seed packets are space-limited. Catalogs offer additional information and for many gardeners, provide a much-anticipated winter diversion. They include a broader seed offering than garden center seed racks, plus garden tools and supplies. Websites take data availability a step further, offering everything in the catalog plus articles and video content with helpful advice on anything and everything gardening related. While there is always a marketing aspect to grower information, it can be insightful and is easily double checked or built on by accessing extension websites like the Virginia Agricultural Extension site whose research and publications are science-based with no market driven agenda.
Seed packets provide helpful information ⇒⇒⇒Web pages provide that and more
Putting the Information to Use
Now that we all understand what everything means, how do we make the best use of it in a home garden? It really comes down to creating a garden plan to put the right plants in the right place at the right time(s), while following intelligent cultural practices to enhance the seed and plant quality and optimize harvest. A quick outline of what this entails is:
- Sketch out the garden to scale
- Decide what you want to grow, based on your personal likes.
- Determine how much to grow of each plant, being mindful that most of us tend to grow more than we can eat, and often more than we can give away.
- Lay out the garden spaces by plant type. Be conscious of cultural practices like crop rotation and inter-planting that can help minimize disease and insect problems.
- Make your seed selections, again based on preferences, conscious of how seed characteristics like disease resistance can benefit the garden.
- Are you a fresh tomato eater for whom indeterminate plants make the most sense, or a preserver who wants a single major harvest, or does a mix of both suit you best?
- Get planting dates right and determine whether you should plant indoors and transplant or seed directly into the garden. Seed growers often offer advice in this area. The VA Cooperative Extension publication 426-331, “Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates” is also a useful tool. When used in conjunction with seed Time to Maturity data, it allows a gardener to put a good schedule together for the spring, summer and fall planting and harvest seasons.
- Keeping a written record of everything is a must for a serious gardener. It is the best way to maintain planting discipline, both for a specific season and from year to year.
- It also makes sense to identify the plant problems that arise during the garden year. You want to know when cabbage pests arrive so you and your preferred control method can be ready for them. You want to know which diseases affect your tomatoes so you can look for the specific resistant varieties in next year’s plants or seeds.
In my case, I execute my plans best when they are broken down into sections or pieces. Having a reasonably detailed plan and sticking to it, makes the work more manageable and the probability of success higher.
Using all the tools available
Vegetable gardening adheres to the old maxim that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Gardening is work in any case. It can be mindful, healing, and extremely satisfying. It can also be frustrating and disappointing when it doesn’t go well. The information available from seed growers can be very helpful in understanding what will grow in your garden and what you have to do to grow it successfully. Integrated into a well-managed garden plan, it adds to your probability of success and satisfaction, this year and in the future.
SOURCES & HELPFUL LINKS:
“How are hybrid and open-pollinated vegetables different?” extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening
“Seed For the Garden,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/426-316.pdf (Pub.No. 426-316, Diane Relf and Alan McDaniel).
“Plant Propagation From Seed,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/426 (Pub.No. 426-001, Diane Relf and Elizabeth Ball)
“Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/426-331/426-331_pdf (Pub.No. 426-331).
“Fall Vegetable Gardening,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/426-334.pdf (Pub.No.426-334).
“Planning the Vegetable Garden,” pubs.ext.vt.edu/426-312.pdfPublication 426-312, Alex Niemera, Extension Horticulturist, VA Tech.
“Understanding the Seed Packet,” uky.edu/files/spring2017newsletter
“Understanding the Seed Packet,” extension.unl.edu/Seeds.pdf (Pub. G1953, Univ.Nebraska, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources).
“Seed Catalogs 101,” piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/seed-catalogs-101/ (Cleve Campbell, “The Garden Shed,” January 2015).