Despite your excitement at planting your new seeds, you stop to read the directions.
They don’t make any sense. There was a frost last night. Is it safe to plant?
The directions suggest that you plant when you have reached your last frost date. This was last week according to your local weather news cast. Now what?
It is such a warm day. You have the time now to plant your seed. Indecision suggests you to stow your seed away until next week hoping that will not be too late.
There is no uniform seed packet description and design.
This can be the cause for confusion in even the most experienced gardener. There can be any number of important cultural information one can find on these packets.
Decodedplants feels you should have a general understanding now that it is that time of the year to consider a new season of gardening.
It is our hope to include most of the commonly-found cultural information items one may find on any quality packaged seed packet. This information may or may not be on any given company’s marketed seed. Each seed company prints what they feel is the minimal pertinent information necessary. For that reason it is advisable to know what may be printed for best seed germination.
Each plant has its own favorite growing conditions. That is why the information on a seed packet is necessary to help grow the maximum number of seeds they contain to maturity. Understanding your typical environmental conditions will be necessary not only to purchase correct seed that will grow well in your niche habitat, but to also understand when and how to plant those seed correctly based on the packet directions.
Weight or Count
Reliable seed packets will show both a weight as well as approximate seed count. Seed companies are required to post an average expected seed weight. Unfortunately, weight doesn’t provide enough information about seed count. Seeds come in a variety of shapes, sizes and weights. Approximate seed count is far better. It is the approximate count because most seed is packaged by weight. Sometimes damaged partial seed is included because it was missed during sorting. The damaged seeds will not sprout though may be part of the weight or count. Always buy more seed than you want for this reason.
Knowing the seed count as well as federally mandated germination rates for “this year’s” seed packet will let you know how many seedlings you should expect from your packet. This in turn will let you know how many seedlings to start or how much room to allow for them to grow to maturity.
Not all seeds have the same germination rate. For example, the US government expects that in a packet of broccoli seed you should expect 75% to germinate. 75% means 3 out of every 4 seeds should sprout. If you want 10 plants then plant at least a dozen seeds – though 15 might be better. You can always give away extra seedlings to unsuspecting friends.
It can be daunting to locate the government germination rate by plant seed type. There is a link to a site in the references for one such article. Be sure to keep your old seed packets as well as the number of seedlings sprouted should you ever doubt your germination rate.
All reliable seed companies list a LOT NUMBER on the packet as well as the best used by date. These companies conduct their own germination rate trials. Poor sprouting may mean any number of things from improper retailer display be the retailer or errors in their own testing. Seed vendors will want to know both the date and LOT number to investigate your problem. Most refund or send new seed to compensate your loss.
You should know your hardiness zone. This general guide is often found overlaid on a map of the United States. There is a url address provided in the references to this article should you need it.
This is just a general information map. Specific localities each have their own “micro climate” due to local weather influences. Large cities are generally warmer than the surrounding country, for example. Large bodies of water will affect growing areas close by. There are a number of environmental features that can affect the US hardiness zones. Your local county extension agent will be able to help you fine tune your search for your own local hardiness zone.
The hardiness zone is useful letting a gardener know which plants grow in what zone. Again this is a general guideline though certainly more exact than finding your growing zone on a full US hardiness zone map. The amount of moisture in the form of rainfall or humidity are also influences on plant growth. Your local extension agent will again be helpful deciding whether a plant described for your zone will actually grow well or not. Sometimes it is just fun to try your hand with a plant only knowing the general hardiness zone.
Just because you know your hardiness zone doesn’t mean that the rest of the instructions help clarify the proper time to plant. For example, most directions will contain a large range for the time periods for planting. Often you will see one or two periods throughout the year that are preferred planting times. You may see the choice of Jan-Mar or June-Sept on your packet. What are you to do?
Much depends on the current season’s weather pattern. Global warming, even just irregular weather can impact on choosing the correct time given these windows. It helps to know the plant’s preference. Seed with a couple of options during the growing season to plant are generally short season plants that prefer cool weather. Radish is a good example. These are fast growing and like cool, moist, humid growing weather. Try to time your planting for the plant preference and the seasonal weather you are experiencing.
Other times the directions will urge you to plant “after all danger of frost”. This again can present some confusion. If your county agent tells you that your last average frost date is May 10, for example, then you will need to begin watching the season’s weather about a month before. You are not looking for a day or two here and there that are above average and frost free. You want to see consistent warm weather that is above the normal expectations before deciding it is safe to plant before the frost free date.
To be truthful, soil temperature is the most reliable method for determining proper planting. All seed has some particular small range of temperatures they prefer for optimal sprouting. You may have seed that sprouts outside of their interval. The majority will sprout in their range. Unfortunately most gardeners don’t own a soil thermometer. And, if they did, there is a good chance they will not use them correctly. Seed companies don’t use soil temperatures in their directions for this reason.
One last common direction you may encounter is the choice for indoor or outdoor planting. It is possible to get earlier maturity from indoor sprouted seed. For these seeds it isn’t really necessary unless you desire a longer bloom/fruiting season. This option in the directions lets the gardener know that the seedlings will transplant fairly well too. Normally the directions will tell you to direct plant when seedlings don’t transplant easily. It helps to keep this rule in mind in the event the directions seem confusing.
Expiration Date and Lot Number
The expiration date and to a lesser the degree Lot Number are important bits of information. Optimal germination will happen as long as the expiration dates hasn’t been reached. This shouldn’t mean to imply that old seed be thrown out. Most seed will sprout past the expiration date though with a lower percentage. Some really time sensitive seed should have a note in the directions to alert the gardener.
Store unused seed in their original packet at room temperature in a dark, dry location. Seed that require temperature variations for stratification processing do not easily recognize the length of time between these changes. Don’t try to outsmart the seed by changing the storing temperature. You could confuse the seed.
Pay attention to whether the seed you are planting is for an annual or perennial. This can impact on planting too. As a general rule perennial seed is more forgiving than annual. This is because perennials are more environmentally tolerant. Perennial seed is accustomed to weather changes. This means that if you guess incorrectly there will still be a fairly good chance for most of the seed to sprout. Of course, tropical perennials only tolerate warm weather.
Height and spread for your plant is often listed both verbally and graphically. It is helpful to have both of these in the description because some of the better seed vendors will attempt to sketch the general shape in the image. Both the verbal and graphic description help gardeners know how to design their planting for optimal performance as well as visual appeal.
Always read the general planting directions. There will be cultural as well as descriptive information that will be invaluable.
Seed Packets Contain Valuable Information
It is a good idea to re-visit your seed catalog or log on to the seed company web site when in doubt. Only so much information can be printed on a seed packet. The information on seed packets can only be as specific as the space allows. Often shorthand directions are put on these tiny spaces to jog the gardener’s brain when they are planting. More informative growing information can be found in the catalog.
If the seed company web site or catalog is still confusing then it is always a good idea to research your particular seed plant in a broader search. It helps to type the plant, germination, planting, height, width, season and other specific desirable information in the search line. Your favorite browser will quickly produce a list of sites that should help answer your question. Visit a few of these sites, especially those where others have posted their experience.
Still, for the limited space on these small seed packets one will find sufficient information to start your seeds. Simply understanding some of the short hand information before hand and you will be able to grow your new plants. The joy of eating or viewing beautiful plants is rewarding. Starting with seed is the challenge that many find enjoyable. In fact, these gardeners look forward with anticipation to their favorite seed company catalog. Only a child waiting for Christmas is more anxious.