Seeds & Seed Packets: The Art of Information
Updated: Feb 17
To ensure success in your seed starting endeavors, you need to now about the seeds you're planting. Eventually it can become second nature, but when you're first starting out you'll need to use some resources out there. Luckily, there are tons. But seed packets are almost an artform in themselves, providing most of what you need to know before you even put it in your cart.
How to Read a Seed Packet
Companies tend to provide (roughly) the same information on their packets, though it can look a lot different from packet to packet. But if you're not sure what the requirements are for your seed, the packet will most likely provide it for you! Here's what they tell us:
1: Plant Name
This area provides the variety that's inside the packet. This is useful information even when we talk about timing because some varieties are best suited for different times of year. For example, Winter Density Lettuce is a romaine that grows best in cold weather, while a lot of other romaine varieties aren't very frost tolerant.
2: Plant Description
Here you'll learn about the flavor, color, and uses for the vegetable. It'll tell you how it likes to grow, and sometimes how big they get or how they are unique from other varieties. Always read this if you're considering a new variety!
3: When to Plant
A lot of times, the packet will tell you exactly when to plant, and it will also indicate if there is a good indoor growing time or if they prefer to be sown directly outside. This is a great resource for determining your timing!
4: Hardiness Zone
I love when seed packets have this info. It will tell you the best time to bring those babies outside and let them set their roots. A note of caution, though: it's general. You'll see a time frame sometimes that can span 1-3 months. Understanding the weather in your area will help you determine the right time, but if you're not sure then err on the side of caution and go on the later end or have a plan to provide protection in place.
5: Light Requirements
It's safe to say that most vegetables need full or mostly sun for optimal success. However, other types of plants have vastly varied light requirements. Knowing what it needs will help you plan your garden and the location of the plants.
6: Days to Harvest
When we talk about timing with planting your seedlings, it's important to not just consider when to get them outside, but also when they'll be ready for harvest. The range they provide is the number of days between transplanting them outside and when you'll actually be able to eat the stuff.
7: Seed Depth
You're gonna need to know how far down to shove that seed when you're planting it. Sometimes they put it here, and sometimes it's in the plant description. Either way, it actually does matter. Some seeds will never germinate without the right amount of light getting to it, and some won't germinate in light at all. It also determines its strength once it starts stretching out of the soil.
8: Plant Spacing
Sometimes they give lots of info here, and sometimes not at all. They could provide some of all of the following information:
Seed spacing: how far apart to place seeds. This is more important for outdoor sowing
Plant spacing: how far apart to stick the plants once you're ready to transplant them. This refers to all plants in the same row
Row spacing: If you plan on planting multiple rows, this spacing refers to the amount of space between each separate row of this particular plant
9: Packet Information
While this information doesn't help you with timing your plantings, it does let you know how viable the seeds still are inside. Every year, the viability of your seeds goes down--some more than others, depending on the plant. Knowing which growing season it was packed for can help you decide whether or not you need to buy new seeds! This seed storage guide by Johnny's Seeds can give you a general idea.
Companies will give you some useful information about their seeds right there on the packet. Here at Kraus Farm, we're pretty selective about the seeds we use to produce our plants. If they're not heirlooms produced right here on site, we look for certain qualities in our plants. Here's some of the terms you should look for:
Heirloom: the seeds are chosen by taking the seeds from the best and strongest plants year after year. They are not lab reproduced. Therefore, you get the plants best suited for your area by buying local heirlooms!
Non-GMO: GMO stands for "genetically modified organism," and means the genes for the plant are modified in a laboratory setting. GMO seeds are really only available for farmers for the most part, so this label is a bit redundant to the home gardener.
Organic: Seeds produced by organic practices and farming methods through certified organic operations. Keep in mind that just because a farm isn't USDA doesn't mean they don't have the same (or better practices), so it's always a good idea to do your homework about the company you buy them from
Open-Pollinated: the flowers of those plants are fertilized by bees, moths, birds, bats, and even the wind or rain--or sometimes itself! This lends itself to a lot of genetic diversity--a desirable trait in any sustainable garden.
Hybrid: If you see an "F1" next to the variety of the seed you're looking at, you've found yourself a hybrid plant. Don't confuse this with GMO! They're a result of two plants that have been "bred" (or crossed) to produce specific traits. The resulting plants you have will probably be more vigorous and productive, but if you're a seed saver, this isn't the variety for you. If you try to save a seed from them, it will be one of the parent plants so it won't be like what you planted. There's nothing wrong with hybrid plants, but they are generally more expensive and don't lead to the genetically diverse gardens we seek in regenerative or sustainable gardening.
Examples of Other Seed Packets
OK so whether you've been at this for a while or you're just getting started, knowing how to read those seed packets is just as important as knowing which seeds to buy.
Consider the Source
As a home gardener, this is super important. Seed farms are located all over the globe, but each plant they produce has been specially adapted to that specific area. Buying locally adapted seeds is always your best bet. In Virginia, we are fortunate to have Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a VA-based seed farm that specializes in organic and open-pollinated seeds with a great reputation for quality and affordability.
However, it's understandable that not all areas have this luxury! Even if you can't find them locally, finding companies that have good seed practices is your next best option. Green Dreamer has an awesome article about seed companies in different areas. You can also check out:
Local gardening clubs
Why the Source Matters
In 2005, Monsanto (now Bayer) grabbed 40% of the U.S. seed market and 20% of the global seed market when it bought out Seminis, making them the largest seed company in the world—supplying the genetics for 55% of the lettuce on U.S. supermarket shelves, 75% of the tomatoes, and 85% of the peppers, as well as many varieties of beans, cucumbers, squash, melon, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and peas (Small Footprint Family). And they've been buying up seed companies ever since.
Why should we care? Because this is killing the genetic diversity of our crops. I plan on writing an article on this alone, but if you want to read more about why it's important now, check out this article by CropTrust.org. When we plant a diverse garden, we invite a diverse ecosystem that maintains balance and provides variety.
Patented and protected seeds cannot be saved, replanted, or shared by farmers and gardeners. And because there is no research exemption for patented material, plant breeders at universities and small seed companies cannot use patented seed to create the new crop varieties that should be the foundation of a just and sustainable agriculture.
This is a lot of info that has taken me years to learn, so I understand if it's overwhelming! If we're following the KISS method here, I would say just start here:
Always look locally first. You'd be surprised what a local (non-big-box) nursery or garden center will carry, and how much they know!
Nothing local? Turn to responsible seed companies. Each of these companies have taken the Safe Seed Pledge:
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, (Mineral, VA)--an organic, Virginia based seed farm that sources its own seeds at awesome prices
Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA)--a non-profit working to save heirlooms from extinction
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Mansfield, MO)--family-owned company with a priority of preserving heritage
MIGardener (Port Huron, MI)--small company specializing in rare & unique varieties at nicely affordable prices (most about $2!)
Clear Creek Seeds (Hulbert, OK)--specializes in open-pollinated varieties and value packs
Botanical Interests (Broomfield, CO)--loads of heirlooms and organic seeds
Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply (Grass Valley, CA)--huge variety, and gives special pricing to schools, farmers, and landscapers
Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Winslow, ME)--great employee-owned company with a huge variety
Fedco Seeds (Waterville, ME)--a unique co-op company owned by customer members and its employees, making them pretty affordable!
Territorial Seed Company (Cottage Grove, OR)--large family-owned company that sources and trials from their own farms
Otherwise, look for varieties that are OSSI Pledged Varieties, meaning they can't be patented or kept from the public. This database can help you find varieties that aren't part of the problem!
How to Help
Native Seeds S.E.A.R.C.H.: Ensure Heirloom seeds are available for families and farmers to grow healthy food. It seeks to find, protect and preserve the seeds of the people of the Greater Southwest so that these arid adapted crops may benefit all peoples and nourish a changing world. [Donate Here]
Seed Savers Exchange: They conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. [Donate Here]
Seed Programs International: Their mission is to provide good quality seed, expertise, and training materials to humanitarian organizations working around the world to alleviate hunger and poverty. They are currently raising money for their project, Seeds and Skills for Women to Grow Vegetables. According to SPI: "Women farmers produce more than half the developing world's food, yet own less than 2% of land and receive little support - such as seeds, tools, and knowledge. We join with women's gardening efforts in the most impoverished countries worldwide including Madagascar, Guatemala, Liberia, and Kenya. By providing top-quality vegetable seeds and locally-driven support, women can access a path to empowerment, income, and nutrition."
Global Seed Network: In response to the increasing corporate control of our food supply, Center for Food Safety launched the Global Seed Network, a peer-to-peer online network for sharing seeds, with the ultimate goal of creating an independent seed supply to bypass the corporations altogether and empower farmers and home gardeners. [Donate Here]
Seed Brands to Avoid
Not sure how to parse out the "demon seed?" It's hard. Sticking with the companies listed above gives you a safe bet. But there is info out there as to which companies are in bed with big agriculture, and here's a sneak peek:
And here's a list of Monsanto-owned seed varieties (think the common plants you see at Lowes or Home Depot when it starts to warm up: all the "boys" and "girls" like Lemon Boy, Better Boy, Better Girl, etc--plus some ones that will surprise you!)
Want to start saving your own seeds? We'll cover that this summer!
Thanks for reading! (I'll go ahead on and climb off of this soapbox now)