Let’s be honest, seed packets can be confusing and consistently inconsistent on the information they provide. Especially when you are new to gardening and just getting started. That said if you get a good one they really do provide all the information that you need in order to go from seed to harvest. So learning to navigate them is definitely important.
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
I truly believe that growing from seed is the best way for any micro homesteader to grow food. Especially, if those seeds are heirloom or open-pollinated. If you want to know more about heirloom seeds you can check out this post on the 5 reasons you should grow heirloom seeds. Growing from seed opens up a whole new world in terms of what it is possible for you to grow in your own backyard, balcony or in your hydroponic system. So let’s go through some of the information that you may come across when you pick up a seed packet.
Before we jump into all the nitty gritty details I also wanted to share with you some of my favourite seed companies. In case you are looking for an excuse to buy just a few more seeds. I know I always am! So if you have another go to seed shop, then please share it in the comments below! If you are a visual learner I also did a YouTube video where I walk you through all the information on seed packets. If that is more your style then you can check it out here.
So let’s just jump into it, buckle up there is going to be a lot of (good) information coming at you. Also keep in mind that not every seed packet is likely to contain ALL this information. This is more to help you understand different terms that you may come across. If you want some FREE downloadable seed packets you can snag some I designed by clicking here.
This is usually just a word to indicate the type of plant such as: Tomato, Pepper, Squash or Bean.
This could be the English or Latin name for the specific variety of the given Plant Type. So if your plant type is Tomato the Plant Variety could be Sunrise Bumblebee (a personal favourite).
Number of Seeds
This one is pretty straightforward. It tells you the MINIMUM amount of seeds you can expect to find in the seed packet. I have had packets say ‘Minimum 10 seeds’ and was happily surprised to see 20-25 seeds inside. So you may get more but you should not get less.
I think it is important to start by saying there is NOTHING wrong with growing hybrids. There are even certain benefits to using them.
A hybrid is just a cross of two other plant varieties, maybe one has the perfect shape or flavour and then other has a tendency to be resistant to a specific disease. The one thing to know is that they do not reproduce true to type. This means they need to be created (by humans) every single year. So while you CAN save seeds from them, the plants those seeds would create would be like one of the parents and not the same as the fruit you saved them from.
Organic seeds are produced according to strict guidelines that must be maintained to ensure that the seeds meet the necessary criteria.
Open-pollinated seeds will produce true to type as long as you prevent cross-pollination which would lead to the creation of a hybrid.
Heirlooms are always open-pollinated and must have been in existence for a number of years (somewhere around 50-100 years depending on who you ask). Heirloom seed also tend to have stories associated with them given their history.
Plant Height & Width
This will tell you the expected MATURE height and width that you can expect the plant to reach. This information is useful to determine where you are going to place your new plant baby. You don’t want to put a small plant in the back and the big one in the front. I skipped over this important piece of information when I was planting my Canterbury bells. I assumed (to my detriment) that they were low to the ground. So you can imagine my surprise when they grew to over two feet tall. Which then meant I needed to relocate them. So pay attention to this info if it is provided on your seed packets and save yourself the trouble of digging things up and moving them later!
This will typically tell you if you should start your seeds indoors (usually a specific time ahead of your last frost date) or if they are better suited to being direct sown outdoors. Even if the packet indicates you can start them indoors it will usually indicate a time to direct sow them if this is your preferred sowing method. There are certain types of plants that typically do NOT like to be transplanted such as cucurbits (melons, squash and cucumbers). But if you have a short season and need to start them indoors then cowpots can be a real help as you can just plant the whole things and they breakdown in the soil.
This just tells you when the seeds were put into the seed package, that’s it. It has NOTHING to do with when they are good until.
Sell by date
This just tells you when the seller wants to have the seeds sold until, that’s it. It does NOT mean they are no good after this date. If you find some old seeds it is ALWAYS worth putting them in soil to see if they germinate. Seed can last for years after the sell by date. How long will depend on the type of seed and how they were stored. Inspired by Luke from MIGardener and him growing some 87 year old Giant Crimson tomato seeds. I decided to try and grow some 21 year old tomato seed my friend gave me. If you want to see how that worked out, you can check out my YouTube video.
This usually takes up most of the real estate on the back of the seed package. It gives you a description of the plant that will result from the seeds in the package. If they are heirloom seeds then it may include the story of those seeds.
It is important to know if a plant is frost hardy or not, so this is a key piece of information! Plant a frost tender plant out too soon and you are in for heartbreak my friend! Frost hardy plants are great to use for winter sowing or to plant for a fall garden. If you want to snag my FREE Fall Planting Guide you can click on the image below.
This lets you know the ideal temperature to encourage germination of your seeds. It does NOT mean that they will not germinate if this temperature is not reached. It will usually just take longer for them to germinate if the temperature is not ideal.
This gives you information on the best time to start the seeds in the package. It typically includes language like ”start seeds indoors X weeks before last frost” or ”direct sow outside after all dangers of frost have passed”. This makes it an important piece of information to pay attention to. I use it to plan out what I am starting when, I then note that information down into my FREE Seed starting and harvest guide. Again, use this as a guide, last frost dates are a moving target. This year I started my seeds later and found that it worked better for me as the seedlings were not so unruly when I starting moving them in and out to harden them off. If you want to know more about the whole hardening off process you can check out my YouTube video on hardening off.
This tells you the target depth for the seeds you are planting. Don’t go stressing yourself out over this though. Just remember it is better to go a bit more shallow than too deep. Why? Well, each seed has all the energy it needs to break out of it’s seed case, start rooting and grow up to breach the soil and throw up it’s first leaves. If the seed is planted too deep then it can use up it’s stored energy before it reaches above the soil. Which means no new plant babies! A good rule of thumb is to plant a seed twice as deep as it is wide. Some seeds should not even be planted into the soil. In this case the seed packet will indicate that they need to be surface sown.
This will give you an idea of how much water your new plant babies will require. I tend to opt for a water deeply less often method as I find this helps to encourage deeper roots that make the plants more resilient. It will also depend where you have planted them, plants in pots will need more frequent watering as their roots don’t have an opportunity to go deep.
You are most likely to see this piece of information on seed packages belonging to hybrid seeds. This is because one of the reasons hybrids were created was to give the plants improved disease resistance. This is definitely a plus for hybrid seeds.
This tells you how far apart you should sow your seeds. This is not necessarily how close your mature plants will end up needing to be. It is also a guide and not written in stone. I have recently been playing around with multisowing which basically takes this information and throws it out the window! So as with anything in gardening try it out and see what works for you.
This is how far your seedlings should be from each other after you have thinned them out. I struggle with this as it always breaks my heart! I am such a sucker for plant babies and struggle to thin them at all. The spacing for thinning will always be wider than the spacing for sowing. It is the spacing that will be ”best” for your mature plants. It is helpful to ensure they have enough space to thrive when mature.
This indicates the ”ideal” temperature, it does NOT mean sudden death if this temperature is not met. This is the temperature that will help them to thrive rather than just surviving.
This is more prominent on perennial seed packages but it tells you what hardiness zones the plant is best suited for. It does not mean that the plant will not grow in your zone. If you are planting a perennial outside of the recommended hardiness zone then it can mean that the plant will NOT come back the next year. However, there are things you can do such as planting in large pots than can be either brought indoors. I don’t recommend this as I ended up with a nasty thrips issue doing this. Another option is to move them to a sheltered area such as a garage.
This tells you when you can expect the flowers to bloom, it might indicate a season, month or a range. It may also indicate if dead-heading (removing spent blossoms) will increase the bloom time. This is a great piece of information if you want to have flowers blooming all season. You can leverage this information to plant different varieties that bloom at different times. Which I am sure the pollinators will appreciate!
Soil Type/Draining Needs
This tells you what are the soil requirements for the plant variety you are growing in order for it to thrive. Again, it doesn’t mean it will NOT grow if these requirements are not meant but it may just survive which could mean a reduced harvest. You may such things as needs for ”rich”, ”well-draining”, ”acidic” or even pH requirements. Do your best to provide these for your plants so you can have an EPIC harvest. That said even if the soil conditions are not ideal give it a try.
Sun Exposure/Light Needs
The sun/light requirements can either tell you if the plant does best in ’full sun’ or ’partial shade’ or may tell you a specific number of hours of sun that the plant needs. This is where it is good to know your garden and sun-mapping it can be a great idea.
Days to Germination
This is the time you can expect to see your new plant babies make their first appearance. Which will not be 30 minutes after you put them in the soil LOL. I know I always end up checking on them so often after I plant them even though I KNOW they won’t appear for days/weeks. This time can be affected by temperature and typically the cooler it is the longer they will take to germinate. A heat mat can be helpful in encouraging germination and ensuring an early or on time appearance!
Days to Maturity
This is a tricky one as that date could indicate the days to maturity from either seed, germination or from transplanting. I typically use this date to ensure I have enough days left in my growing season to ensure it has time to reach maturity plus a few weeks of buffer. If you have a short growing season or if you are starting seeds late then this day may become the MOST important piece of information on your seed packets. That said a seed not planted has NO chance of providing food vs a seed planted at least has a chance.
Annual vs Perennial vs Self-Seeding Annual vs Biennial
This is typically just a word on the front of the seed packets. If you see ’Annual’ then that tells you that the plant will only last one growing season. If you see ‘Perennial’ then you can expect that plant to come back year over year and placement will be key as it will be there for a LONG time. Less common are self-seeding annual and biennial. If you see ’Self-seeding annual’ it means that the plant will only last one growing season BUT it has a habit of dropping seeds so that it tends to come back in the same spot each year. Making it effectively function as a perennial. Lastly, we have the ’biennial’, this is a plant that will come back for at least two years and tends to flower in the second year.
I have so far only seen this on one company’s seed packets and I thought it was such a cool piece of information. It provided information on wether or not the seed was container friendly. It even indicated how many plants per pot were ideal. I wish more seed packets had this information as it is super helpful for people trying to grow food in a small space!
This can be information about methods and timing of harvesting. I have noticed this tends to be more on seed packets of companies that tend to sell in bulk or target larger farming ventures (ie: Jonny Seeds). I wish more see packets provided this type of information!
Much like the Harvesting Information this type of info tends to be on the seed packets of companies that tend to sell in bulk or target larger farming ventures (ie: Jonny Seeds). It gives you information on the best way to store your EPIC harvest in order for it to keep the longest.
I hope you are feeling more confident at navigating those consistently inconsistent seed packets now that you are armed with all this information! I have also included a link below to my YouTube video where I walk you through all the above information and show some different seed packages.