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Seed Packets, What does it all mean?

By Paul Rodman (paulgrowMarch 4, 2010

There’s a lot of valuable information on a seed packet. What does it all mean? How can I use it to my advantage to successfully germinate the seeds inside?

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(Editor's Note:  This article was originally published on March 6, 2008.)

When preparing to plant seeds, whether it be flowers or vegetables, obviously you want to get the maximum yield for the number of seeds that you plant. In order to accomplish this you need to follow the instructions on the seed packet. This data has been gathered from extensive testing by the seed companies. When buying seed in packets stay away from the brands that have no planting or cultural information on the packet.

In my humble opinion, Johnny’s Selected Seeds has the most thorough instructions of any company out there. I will be using Johnny's packet as a guide to explain what all of the information specifically means.


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On the front of the pack you will be given the common plant name, plus the specific variety or cultivar. Usually on flowers you will also be given the botanical name.

The maturity date will be given in days. For example on a lettuce pack, it will grow to baby size in 28 days and fully mature in 52 days. These are excellent guidelines if you intend to plant seeds so that they will mature in succession. This is especially important for market growers who need to have a steady supply of produce. The number of seeds in the package will be listed along with the sell-by date.

One feature that Johnny’s provides that I haven’t seen on any other package is the minimum germination in percentages. I have found this to be very helpful when a specific number of plants are required. For example if you need 100 plants and the minimum germination is listed at 85% you should plant 115 seeds to be sure that you get required 100.

Cultural information includes the following:

  • Germination temperature. If starting seed indoors you can control the temperature of the heat mat or whatever source of heat that you are using to ensure maximum germination.
  • Planting depth.  The depth that the seeds need to be planted. Some seeds require light to germinate so you just need to lay them on the soil surface and not cover them with anything. Some require total darkness so that you need to cover the planting container so that no light is available until the seeds germinate.

There are two terms that are especially important when planting seeds that you should look for.

Scarification, this term applies to seeds that have a very hard outer coating. You need to nick or break the outer covering so that moisture can penetrate and germination can begin. This is usually accomplished by using a sharp knife or sand paper to penetrate the outer coating. If this procedure is not followed on seeds that require it you will have a very low or zero germination rate.

Stratification, this term means the seeds need to be exposed to a period of cold for a set amount of time. This term usually applies to perennials and biennials. If the seeds are not given a cold period, again you will have a zero or very low germination rate.

These terms will be listed on any package of seeds that requires either of these procedures for germination.

Harvesting information will sometimes be listed as well as how to best store that particular crop.


A couple of other final notes about the information provided in seed catalogs.  Market growers and those preserving food need to know what yields to expect for canning or preserving. Tables are usually found in the seed company catalogs. Let's take green beans for example. A 100-foot-row of bush beans will require a half-pound of seed and will yield approximately 80 pounds of beans. This will give you some idea on how much seed to buy and also how much to plant to produce the desired quantity of crops.

If you’re planning to can or preserve your harvest, also check your Ball Blue Book as it contains a garden planning guide. It gives you the amount to plant in order to have a specific amount to preserve. Again I’ll use green beans; Ball's guidelines state that a 100-foot-row will give you approximately 30 quarts of processed green beans.

That’s it in a nutshell: be sure to read the seed packets in order to determine how, when, and how much to plant to ensure a bountiful harvest from your gardens.


Good planting and fruitful harvest!


Seed packets courtesy Johnny's Selected Seeds

  About Paul Rodman  
Paul RodmanPaul Rodman has been gardening for over 45 years. He is an Advanced Master Gardener, and American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian. He is President Emertius of the Western Wayne County Master Gardener Association in Wayne County, Michigan. He currently serves as the greenhouse chairman of this group. Rodman has amassed over 5500 volunteer hours in the Master Gardener program. Rodman is the garden columnist for The News Herald newspaper, in Southgate, Michigan. He has also written for the Organic web site. He is a certified Master Canner and has taught classes on Home Food Preserving for 7 years. He has lectured on various gardening topics throughout southeastern Michigan. His favorite pastime is teaching children about gardening. For the past several years he has conducted classes for second grade students teaching them about subjects ranging from vermi-composting to propagation.

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