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Are you trying to read a garden seed packet and having difficulty deciphering the terminology? This article will help you easily decipher that confusing gardening lingo!
When you’re new to something, you might have noticed that the “veterans” speak a whole different language than you’ve ever heard before. Yes, they’re technically using English, but the terminology still seems quite foreign.
Whether it’s a sport, a profession, a pastime, or hobby, you’ll find this to be the case.
Why? For one, we humans love setting ourselves apart from other people and sending verbal cues that we’re part of the expert in-group, whatever that in-group happens to be (mountain climber, surfer, knitter, mechanical engineer, gardener, etc).
If you’re a newbie, this can leave you feeling like the black sheep in the flock…
By Jesus Solana from Madrid, Spain – Black sheep . Do u also feel different? // la Oveja negra. Tambien te sientes diferente?, CC BY 2.0, Link.
If you get excited by “glassy, head high tubes with offshore winds,” you’re speaking surfer. If you get excited by “microbially robust, no-till beds swarming with annelids,” you’re speaking organic gardener.
There are also practical reasons we form unique languages around particular specialty areas: due to the specialized knowledge inherent in them, they REQUIRE different words and phrases to efficiently describe what something is or how it should be done.
Deciphering Gardening Lingo
Don’t feel bad if you don’t speak the lingo of whatever new activity you’re getting started in. That’s par for the course (yes, that’s a golfing term).
Just do the best you can and understand that learning this strange new language will help you understand and perform the activity better. It may also help you quickly make new friends who share your passion when they hear you speaking their language!
Gardening is not unique in this regard. If you’re a new gardener, we want to help you decipher some of the language/terms you might not be familiar with as you’re getting started. One place you’re very likely to encounter this strange new language is on seed packets.
As such, we’re going to dissect the language on a GrowJourney seed packet and quickly explain what the terminology means. Granted, our seed packets are quite different than most other companies’ seed packets and contain unique info, but you’ll still encounter this same gardening language elsewhere.
How to Read a Garden Seed Packet
Each letter in a purple circle (above) corresponds with the section (below) explaining what it means:
A. Plant “Common Name”
The first thing you’ll see at the top left of our (and many other) seed packets is the common name of the seed. The common name is usually given to it by the person/s who originally bred the plant or by virtue of a generally agreed upon name that has often been passed down over generations.
For instance, the ‘Cherokee Purple’ heirloom tomato was bred hundreds of years ago by the Cherokee nation, hence the tomato variety’s common name.
The problem with common names, is that each culture, country, or village can have a different common name for the same plant. This caused a lot of confusion back in the day, which is why…
B. Plant “Botanical Name” or “Scientific Name” + “Days to Maturity”
Today, binomial nomenclature applied to algae, fungi, and plants, is called a “botanical name.” Basically, this means whether you’re in the mountains of Appalachia or in the French Riviera, you might have totally different common names for a seed variety, but everyone still uses and agrees upon one single, common botanical name.
That’s why you’ll always see the botanical name under the common name on a GrowJourney seed packet.
One additional thing to note is that common names do provide a unique benefit that botanical/scientific names can not. As an example, you’ve probably noticed that there are thousands of different types of tomato, corn, cabbage, tomatillo, etc seed varieties, each with its own common/varietal name. However, despite their different common names, all those tomatoes share a single botanical name because they’re all part of the same species and can breed with each other.
Days To Maturity
Notice where it says “70 days” next to the botanical name on the seed packet? That means, you can expect to have ripe ground cherries in your hand from a mature ground cherry plant within 70 days of the seed sprouting.
C. Annual, Biennial, Perennial AND Determinate vs Indeterminate
This small bit of bold text at the beginning of our seed descriptions holds a surprisingly large amount of info.
Annual, biennial, or perennial refers to the different lifecycle/lifespan of a particular plant.
What are Annual plants?
Annual plants are short-lived plants that will complete their life cycle within a single growing season or year.
Sometimes, your growing zone can impact whether a plant is an annual or perennial. For instance, tomatoes and eggplants are usually grown as annual plants, but they can actually live and continue producing for many years if you live near the equator.
What are Biennial plants?
Biennial plants complete their life cycle within two years. They put on a lot of size one year, and produce flowers/seeds the next.
Many brassicas, such as kale, are biennials. If you want to grow them for seed, plan to overwinter them. If you only want to grow them for a leaf harvest, you can remove them the first year.
What are Perennial plants?
Perennial plants are plants that will live for at least 3 years. There are short-lived perennials (like ‘Garnet Stemmed’ chicory which lives for about 3 years) and long-lived perennials like oak trees that can live for hundreds or even thousands of years.
We encourage people to grow a mix of all three types of plants in their gardens, and also consider dedicating part of their property to creating low-maintenance, high-yielding forest gardens, if space allows. (The Amazon Rainforest of today is actually an 8,000+ year old largely manmade forest garden.)
What are determinate and indeterminate plants?
Determinate and indeterminate are terms often used to describe tomatoes, but they can also apply to other plants as well:
Determinate plants produce all their fruit at once, so they’re harvested within a very short window of time.
Determinate plants are helpful if you want to do a bunch of canning all at once from a garden harvest or if you’re a farmer trying to schedule a crew of pickers.
Indeterminate plants will continue producing throughout a growing season, providing you with repeated harvests.
Indeterminate plants are great if you’re a gardener wanting to get fresh produce daily/weekly over a long period of time. They’re also great if you’re a farmer who wants to continue offering the same type of produce each week at a Farmer’s Market.
D. Plant Descriptions
Tell me about yourself, beautiful. Where are you from? What do you taste like? What makes you different? Is there a story behind you? Are you special to the seed company or farmer that’s bringing you to me?
Answering these questions is what the plant description section is all about.
E. Planting Instructions
This section of our seed packet provides you with the basic planting instructions you need.
Here’s what the terminology in the planting instructions section means:
Growth habit refers to the dimensions of the mature plant. Is it vining or bush? How tall and wide will it be at maturity?
This is important information when you’re planning where to put a tiny seed or seedling that might eventually grow up to swallow a much larger piece of your garden. That’s also why we provide plant spacing recommendations in this section as well.
Seed Planting Depth
Seed planting depth is hugely important to successfully starting your seeds. Some seeds like to be surface sown and require light/sunlight to germinate. Some seeds like to be buried just below the surface. Others need to be buried an inch or more underground.
If you put a seed that needs to be surface-sown 1″ underground, it won’t germinate. Pay careful attention to recommended seed planting depth when starting any seed!
Indoor versus outdoor seed starting instructions
Indoor/outdoor seed starting instructions are also very important to your success. You shouldn’t try to start a pepper seed outdoors in your garden if it’s freezing cold in the wintertime.
You can technically start any seed indoors or outdoors, but some are more difficult than others, and where you live might impact your decision to start indoors vs outdoors. For instance, if you live in Minnesota or Quebec, you don’t have a very long summer growing season. That means you’ll tend to want to get a head start on the season by starting many of your seeds indoors and then transplanting them outdoors, carefully timing your starting and transplanting dates relative to your first and last frost dates.
F. Light Requirements
There are edible plants that can grow in any light condition, from full shade to full sun. However, if you put a full shade plant in a full sun spot in your garden, it will likely burn and die.
Likewise, putting a full sun plant in full shade will likely cause it to get “leggy” (lanky and sickly) and die from lack of sunlight.
Note the sun requirements on your seed packets and plan to put them in spots in your garden to match:
- full sun = 6+ hours of direct, unobstructed sunlight
- part shade / part sun = 4-6 hours of direct sunlight
- full shade = less than 2 hours of direct sunlight
G. Seed Viability
Seed viability refers to how many years a seed will last when properly stored. That’s rather important information if you’re planning a garden, right?
If you have a packet of 50 seeds that will only last one year and another packet of 50 seeds that will last for 6 years, you’ll probably want to try to get as many of your 1 year seeds in the ground immediately while saving many of your 6 year seeds for future seasons.
That’s why we make sure to put the “seed viability” information right on the front of our seed packets, highlighted. As far as we know, we’re the only seed company that does this!
If you’re a GrowJourney member, you might have also noticed that inside our paper seed packets, your seeds are safely stored in airtight plastic baggies. Why? This extends their viability, guarantees they’re not moisture-damaged in the mail on the way to you, and saves you a lot of grief if your kiddo spills their glass of milk on your seed packets.
H. Growing Seasons
Most garden plants are like Goldilocks. They like their temperatures just right. For most people living in the United States, you can grow food 365 days per year like we do in Greenville, SC (some growing zones require more effort to make this possible).
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just glance at your seed collection and instantly see which ones prefer warm weather and which ones prefer cool weather? We thought so too, so that’s why we’re the only seed company with orange and blue seed packets, denoting the seasons in which the seeds will grow best.
Depending on where you live:
- Blue packets = fall / winter / spring
- Orange packets = spring / summer
I. USDA Certified Organic Seeds
In our opinion, the only label in the US food system that really means something, has teeth, and is rigorously enforced both by government agencies and independent certifying agencies, is the USDA certified organic label.
It’s not perfect and there are cheaters that make the news, but it’s pretty dang good. We’re happy to be regulated and inspected, and we’re also happy to work with USDA certified organic farmers and seed breeders around the US who are part of the organic program with us. It matters and it’s important, as you can read about here.
As part of the new USDA certified organic labeling standards, our seed packets have to include our certifying agency, which is the Department of Plant Industry at Clemson University.
J. Growing Notes
A little something extra we provide on our seed packets is visual icons showing you some additional features of the seed variety inside. If you’re a GrowJourney member, you’ll likely recognize this key at the top of your My Seeds page telling you what each icon means:
K. Public Seed Sales Regulations
Thankfully, seed companies are required by law to provide certain information on their seed packets to the general public. A quick breakdown of this info:
- What year are the seeds packed for?
- What’s the “lot number” so there is traceability all the way from the farm of origin to the garden or farm at the end of the chain?
- Minimum Germination is the percentage of seeds that you can expect to germinate. No packet of seeds will ever have 100% germination, and each variety of seed is a little different on germination percentages. The number on the packet comes from third party providers at various state Departments of Agriculture. Yes, they actually test sprout the seeds! If a seed company sends them seeds that don’t meet a minimum germination standard, the company can not legally sell those seeds to the public. Also, if you have 10% germination from new seeds that should have had 90% germination, this likely means that you made a booboo somewhere. Once you get good at seed starting, you should be able to have your germination numbers match or even exceed the minimum germination percentages on your seed packets.
- Minimum Weight – How much seed is actually in that packet? This is where minimum weight info comes in handy. A single squash seed might weigh more than multiple packets of chamomile seeds, so it’s important to compare specific varieties to get a true apples to apples comparison.
So now you know a bit more about how to read a seed packet! Are you ready to start speaking in the strange foreign language of gardeners?
Next step? Go get some soil under your nails and hang out with other gardening nuts. You’ll soon have the knowledge you need to put piles of fresh organic produce on your kitchen table!
Part of talking the talk is walking the walk.
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