Gardening 101: Reading a seed packet
So many to choose! Much like a recipe that's only as good as its ingredients, a garden also is only as good as its seeds.
Selecting your seeds through the colorful pictures of seed catalogs and reading many fanciful names as well as an abundant of varieties can be quite overwhelming.
Deciphering information on the seed packet will help you select the right seed for the right space. Different seed companies use different terms, but, in general, they mean the same.
Back of seed packet
Days to germinate/days to emerge: This is how many days it will take before you begin to see the sprout rise up from soil level. Carrots are an excellent example. Depending on the variety, some packets will say seven to 14 days, others may say 21 days. With this information, you will know not to replant if only a week has passed...they will show themselves soon.
Seed spacing: This number tells you how far apart to plant your seeds from one another. For example, the spacing for a Mammoth Russian Sunflower is a group of three seeds every two feet. The space is determined by how much room the plant will need as it begins to establish its root system. Additionally, as it matures, it needs room to soak up water and nutrients without competing with nearby plants. In order to have productive plants, pay close attention to seed spacing.
Seed depth/depth to sow: This number determines how far down you need to push or bury the seed when planting. Again, depending on type and variety, the number will be between 1/8-inch to 2 inches. Placing the seed at the appropriate depth ensures a strong and stable root system.
Row spacing: Generally, row spacing is the space needed between rows. This number will vary between plant types. Vining plants — like squash, pumpkins, watermelon, etc. — will need 5 to 6 foot between rows. Salad-leaf plants may need only about a foot between rows, but peppers and tomatoes do best at 3 feet between rows. This number may also be determined by the use of farm machinery (i.e., tiller). As backyard gardeners, spacing between rows are determined more by your needs.
Thinning: Thinning refers to when you remove some of the sprouts that germinated. Remove the weakest of the plants, leaving the tallest, sturdiest, strongest plants to mature. This ensures sufficient space for the plant to mature.
Plant height: This number gives you an approximation of how tall the plant will mature. This is especially helpful when designing a flower bed, so you have taller flowers toward the back and shorter flowers in the front. In a vegetable garden, knowing the height of a plant can ensure that all plants get enough sunlight. A 3-foot tomato plant may not produce as well if shaded by 10-foot sunflowers.
Although equally important, the following information are not commonly found on all seed packets.
Soil temp for germ: Soils need to reach a specific temperature in order for seeds to germinate. For vegetables, the optimum temperature is between 40 to 60 degrees. Even if the minimum temperature is met, germination may be delayed. For example, a carrot planted in 41-degree soil may take much longer to germinate than if planted in soil temperature of 50 degrees. Beans may need warmer soil temperature, whereas peas and onions can germinate in cooler soil temperatures.
Transplanting/when to start inside/plant indoors: This tells you when to start seeds indoors. It is typically based on your average first or last frost date. For example: last spring frost in Zone 3 was May 14; first fall frost was September 25; the average growing season is 133 days.
Harvest: When applied to seeds intended to be sown directly into the garden, this is the number of days between sowing and harvesting. However, if the seed needs to be started indoors, this number indicates the number of days to harvest from when the seedling is transplanted outdoors. For example: A bean labelled 70 days will be ready to harvest in 70 days after you sow it outdoors. However, a tomato says harvest in 70 days, it is 70 days (10 weeks) AFTER it was transplanted outdoors.
Direct sowing/when to start outside/start outdoors: Because temperature is an important factor in seed germination, seed starting time varies from zone to zone. Seed packets have guidelines for different zones as indicated on a map. (Outdoor Planting Dates). Based on your zone, the outdoor planting date is the optimum time to directly sow seeds into the ground.
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