Seed Buying 101
Do you ever get overwhelmed when buying seeds? There are so many varieties to choose from, and deciphering so many product descriptions can make things all the more confusing.
Heirloom, hybrid, open-pollinated, GMO, organic, treated and untreated—what does it all mean?
Seed buying isn’t as simple as filling your online cart with every colorful photo that catches your attention. To have a successful season, you’ll want to do some planning and make mindful seed purchases.
This article will unpack some of these common terms and provide general guidelines and tips for buying seeds–do yourself a favor and save this post for future reference.
What information to expect on seed packets
All Seeds ‘N Such seed packets are clearly labeled with everything you need to know to successfully germinate your seeds. Regardless of each plant species or variety, you can find this information on each packet:
- Plant name and description
The plant’s common name and botanical (scientific) name, as well as the variety name.
- Item number and lot number
The unique number that identifies that seed variety in our product catalog, as well as a number corresponding to a particular batch of seeds.
- Approximate number of seeds
The range of seeds you can expect in each packet.
- Guaranteed germination rate
The minimum percentage of seeds you can expect to germinate.
- Planting instructions
How to start the seeds and grow the crop.
Our promise to guarantee your seeds 45 days from purchase.
Our value-based seed packets provide basic information to start your seeds at home, but more detailed planting guides can be found on our website.
Glossary of common terms
You may have noticed by now that there is an entire lexicon for gardening. And while some of these words may be familiar, chances are that even the experienced grower may have questions about what certain terms mean.
Some terms are used to describe how the variety was created. All seeds are either hybrid or open-pollinated, and some open-pollinated varieties are actually heirlooms.
A combination of two or more plants with the intent to isolate a desirable trait or yield more abundant harvests is referred to as a hybrid. Hybrid varieties are cross-pollinated, meaning that they were developed through the intentional crossing of two species, typically by hand or through the use of natural pollinators in an enclosed space like a greenhouse. Hybrids tend to have more disease and pest resistance than open-pollinated and heirloom varieties.
When two plants of the same species pollinate naturally, as opposed to being engineered by humans, the plant is considered open-pollinated. Bees and other insects, birds, animals, wind, and water are all natural pollinators that contribute to the creation of open-pollinated cultivars.
An heirloom is an open-pollinated plant, such as an old family variety, that has been passed down through multiple generations. Varieties must be at least 50 years old to be considered an heirloom. Heirloom varieties are prized for their unbeatable flavors and regional adaptability.
You might also come across terms that describe how the seed itself was produced or processed.
Genetically modified organism (GMO)
GMO is used to describe any plant or animal that has been genetically engineered by chemical or other DNA manipulation to carry certain desirable traits, such as disease resistance, increased productivity or improved shelf life. Non-GMO seeds, like the ones available at Seeds ‘N Such, have not knowingly been genetically engineered.
Seeds that are treated simply have a coating. The coating can either be a fungicide to help prevent disease, or a chemical to help promote germination.
Untreated seeds are seeds that have not been chemically treated in any way. While these may be harder to find, untreated seeds are preferred for organic gardening.
Pelleted seeds are seeds that have been compressed into a pellet of clay, fertilizer, or another bonding agent to help make them easier to handle and plant. Tiny seeds petunias are often sold as pelleted seeds, for ease of sowing. Some seeds are combined in multiple within one larger pellet to enhance the visual aspect or provide a unique growing experience, as with our SimplySalad offerings.
Organic seeds are produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. Organic seeds are certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to have been grown and processed in accordance with organic standards. When shopping for organic seeds, look for the “Certified Organic” label.
Certain terms are used to describe a plant’s life cycle.
An annual plant grows, sets seed, and dies all within a one-year period. Most vegetables and many flowers are classified as annuals. Heat-loving vegetables like tomatoes and peppers are almost always grown as annuals in North America.
Perennial plants live for multiple years and may spread or self-seed. They often require less maintenance and come back stronger year after year. Many common culinary herbs like thyme and sage are perennials.
Biennials are plants that require two growing seasons in order to produce seeds. During their first season, they grow vegetative tops and store energy for blooms and seed production the following season. Many cool-season crops, including plants in the brassica family, are technically biennial plants.
There are also words that describe how a plant grows:
Determinate plants are varieties that have been bred to produce one large harvest of fruit at one time—ideal for canning, freezing, and preserving. Determinate plants grow until they reach a certain size or height, set fruit, and then stop producing.
Indeterminate plants bear fruit continually throughout the growing season, growing and producing fruit until the vines are killed by frost. Many heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate varieties.
Bush varieties are plants bred to have a more compact form than standard varieties. They require less space in the garden and are often ideal for small-space or container gardens. Peas, squash, and beans are examples of plants that have bush varieties.
Pole varieties are plants that need support from a trellis or other structure in order to be productive. These types of plants need more space to grow and can be great for vertical gardening. Many peas and beans are pole types.
Vining varieties are plants bred to trail along the ground and climb. These are great for vertical gardening and can save space in the garden. Some squash varieties are vining if they continue to grow and produce until frost.
Some terms describe how the seeds must be prepared in order to germinate:
Stratification is the process of cold-treating seeds before planting. For best results, stratify seeds in moist sand or soil in the refrigerator for two to four weeks before planting.
Scarification is a process of helping seeds to germinate. This is often done by soaking them in water and abrasively rubbing off their protective coating with sandpaper. or nicking the seed coat with a fingernail.
There are a few more important details that provide information on when and where to start seeds:
The instruction to plant seeds directly in the ground. Plants with delicate taproots prefer to be direct sown, including root crops like carrots or shallow-rooted squash.
A recommendation to start seeds indoors, then transplant them to the garden. Plants that take several weeks to germinate, like peppers, are usually started indoors.
The germination rate is a percentage that tells what percentage of the seeds you buy are likely to sprout. A good germination rate is typically between 80-95%, so make sure to check the label before you buy.
A geographical region defined by temperature is known as a hardiness zone. Hardiness zones are characterized by the average first and last frost dates of that particular region, and you can identify yours here. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones. The USDA Hardiness Zone Map can help you zero in on the perennials, trees, and shrubs that can tolerate your region's climate.
Last frost date
The last frost date is the approximate date when the last spring frost will occur in your region. This date informs when you should start seeds and how soon you can transplant seedlings outside. Hardy plants can be planted before the last frost, while heat-sensitive plants will need to wait until the soil warms.
First frost date
The first frost date is the approximate date when the first fall frost will occur in your region. Knowing your first frost date is important for knowing when to harvest heat-sensitive crops and when to start preparing for winter.
Days to maturity
Days to maturity is is from seedling to maturity for direct sown varieties, and from transplant to maturity for seeds started indoors.This number comes from trials and can depend on your climate and soil type.There are also special designations that reflect high-quality seeds:
All-America Selections (AAS) Winners are varieties of vegetables and flowers that have been rigorously tested for their performance and disease resistance in a variety of climates. AAS Winners are a great way to find reliable and well-performing varieties for your garden.
Seed packets for certain varieties may contain information about disease resistance, represented by letters. These are called disease resistance codes, and more information about these codes can be found here.
These are just a few of the terms you might see on seed packets. Investing time in reading the seed packet will ensure that you select the best varieties for your own garden.
6 tips for buying seeds
Be a savvy seed shopper by utilizing these tips to keep you on-task and under budget when shopping for seeds online.
Make a garden plan before you buy.
This article outlines how to make a garden plan. If you’re stuck, this post offers three sample garden plans based on household size.
Inventory what you already have.
Some seeds are good for years past their purchase date. If you have leftover seeds from last season and the seeds were stored in a cool and dry location, you may be able to use them this season. Check this chart for a list of common seeds and how long they are typically good for.
Research your hardiness zone, and local frost dates.
Take the time to do your research on each variety to ensure that you’re buying the right type of seed for your location. Find your USDA hardiness zone here and check your frost dates here.
Buy seeds at the end of the year for the best deals, and buy seeds at the beginning of the year for the best quality.
Seeds often go on sale at the end of the year, to move the previous year’s product to make room for the next year’s stock. You’ll find the best deals on last year’s seeds, but new seeds will always have the highest germination rates. Order seeds at the beginning of the year to ensure you get the quantity and varieties that you want
Buy seeds in bulk to save money.
At Seeds ‘N Such, we strive to make it easy to find quality seeds at an affordable price. And the more you buy, the more you save—so get organized and do all your seed shopping at once. Go in with friends on your seed order to save even more money.
Opt for disease-resistant varieties when possible.
Hybrid seeds are generally more disease-resistant than heirlooms. Our breeders keep improving your favorite hybrid varieties every year so that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor for productivity in the garden.
Now that you have a better understanding of the language on the seed packets, you’re better prepared to make smarter, more informed decisions about which seeds to buy for your garden. Make a garden plan that is informed by your regional climate and choose your favorite disease-resistant varieties to set yourself up for success from the very beginning.