How to Read a Seed Packet or Catalog

Winter gardening advice always includes going through gardening catalogs and deciding what plants you want to grow in the coming year. SO YOU KNOW HOW TO READ A SEED CATALOG OR SEED PACKET? It won’t be long before your mailbox is filled with seed and plant catalogs of every description. These messengers of good things to come arrive at a time when most of us are ready for the escape these publications offer. Ever come across words that are unfamiliar while perusing? Knowing what these words means can add a lot to your horticultural knowledge and make you a better informed consumer.

Annuals refer to plants that will die when temperatures start to get below freezing. These also need to be replanted year after year.

Perennials refers to plants that come back year after year (if you are in the correct zone for that plant). Daffodils are perennials. You plant the bulbs once and then they come back every year.

It’s complicated! In Lubbock there are many plants that we grow as annuals that, if grown in the tropics, would be perennials. Peppers and tomatoes for example could live YEARS if you were in the tropics. There are also herbs that are perennial in some parts of the US, but annual in others.Some annuals self-sow and drop seeds in the fall. The seed lies on the ground all winter and germinates in the spring, usually in the same location that the plant was in the previous season. This makes many people call them perennial when, in fact, they are not.

The key is “hardiness zone”. The United States is broken up into 11 hardiness zones based upon the lowest average winter temperature for the area. Knowing what zone you garden in and seeing what zone the plant is hardy to will help you pick plants that should survive the winter. When you see a perennial offered for sale, don’t just look at the pretty picture, make sure it is at least hardy to your zone. In Lubbock, we are in Zone 7.

Variety means simply a version or strain of a plant. Different varieties have different characteristics—for instance, better disease resistance or a flavor different from other varieties of the same species. You might be willing to buy a “tomato” in the supermarket, but if you are growing your own, you’d probably rather buy a variety with better flavor that may not be able to travel the thousands of miles required of grocery-store tomatoes.

Seeds of hybrid varieties exhibit the best characteristics of both parents. They may be more disease resistant, or suitable for hot weather, but you can’t save seed from your hybrid varieties, plant it the following season, and expect to get the same results. Open-pollinated varieties are often associated with heirloom or antique varieties of flowers and vegetables. They may have better flavor or fragrance.

Days to harvest, usually shown in number of days, refers to the average number of days it usually takes after you set out transplants before you can expect your first harvest. This is variable and depends on growing conditions so take the number with a grain of salt.

Disease tolerance and disease resistance tell us what degree of tolerance to common pests or diseases have been bred into the seed. They are both good things but have different meanings. A plant listed as disease tolerant will probably get a disease common to the plant. It may not, however, be so bad as to warrant spraying and it usually does not affect appearance all that much. Disease resistance means the plant has been bred to resist common disease problems and will probably not get the disease. A common example is in roses. You will find roses listed as both disease resistant to black spot and those listed as disease tolerant to black spot. Some common markings are:
VFN is commonly run together; it means a resistance to:
– Verticillium wilt of tomatoes and eggplant.
– Fusarium fungus of tomatoes and others.
– Nematodes, microscopic soil worms that bother especially tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.
T or TMV indicates resistance to tobacco mosaic virus that affects tomatoes and peppers.
BMV means resistance to bean mosaic virus.
CMV means resistance to cucumber mosaic virus.

Organic seeds marketed as organic were grown on a certified-organic farm and have not been treated with pesticides or coated with chemicals to prevent rotting or premature sprouting. They’ve also never been genetically modified (GM) with things like bacteria or other plant DNA. The FDA requires seeds treated with poisonous chemicals to be dyed to prevent confusion.

Pelleted means that the seeds themselves are coated with some material (usually clay) that dissolves once you plant the seed. The idea is to make tiny seeds easier to plant and also allow you to distribute them in the soil in a more uniform way.

Determinate and indeterminate are words often associated with tomatoes. They refer to how large the plants get and how they grow. Determinate types tend to stay more compact and bushy, do well in cages, and are well-suited for smaller space gardens and containers. The indeterminate types tend to get tall and just keep getting taller over the summer. They usually require staking to keep them off the ground.