A Guide for Seed Buying

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As a horticulture agent, it has been encouraging to see the increase of interest people have shown in growing their own home gardens. Online seed sales have almost tripled since the COVID-19 pandemic began. With so many websites, stores, and places to buy seeds, you may be overwhelmed with all these choices. This article is to help guide you through your seed choices and shopping.

To narrow your choices, have a goal in mind. Are you wanting a summer garden or fall garden? Or maybe you just  want a pollinator garden. Once you have a goal, you can start looking for specific plants to fill your garden.

Next, consider the amount of space you have. In a small garden, avoid vegetables like sweet corn, pumpkins and watermelon that will take up a lot of garden space. Instead, focus on higher-producing, more compact vegetables like leafy greens, tomatoes, beans, herbs and peppers. For even more compact plants, look for varieties listed as bush, dwarf, patio or good for containers.

Lastly, I will focus on seed labeling and terminology. On a seed packet you will get various amounts of information about that particular plant. It is important to read all the information and understand the terminology that goes along with it.

Seed viability refers to the seed’s ability to germinate under suitable conditions. Germination refers to the process by which an organism grows from a seed. Seed packets generally list a germination rate. If you have a packet of 100 seeds and the germination rate is 90%, this means 90 of those 100 seeds should germinate under the correct conditions. When buying seed packets, look for high germination rates.

Read the label and determine whether the seeds will need an early start indoors. Cool-season crops like broccoli and cabbage benefit from being started indoors, so they are large enough to be transplanted out in the garden. Warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers need to be started under lights inside so they are ready to go in the garden when the soil has warmed up and the last frost is past.

Seed labels will also suggest when to plant the seeds outdoors. Most seed packets include the US hardiness zone map. Depending on the plant and your location, it will suggest a range of when you can sow your seeds without the risk of them getting frostbit. In western North Carolina, it’ll usually suggest between the months of May and June.

seed packet

On a seed packet you will get various amounts of information about that particular plant.

Other terminology you may see on seed packets are; hybrid (F1), heirloom, and open-pollinated (OP) varieties. Hybrid varieties are the intentional crosses between two or more varieties. Because of their diverse parentage, hybrid plants will not produce consistent, reliable offspring if you were to save their seed.

Heirloom varieties are what I refer to as “what our grandparents planted”. A more scientific term is a variety that has been saved through the generations by a specific family or group or to an original species that is the same as which grows wild in its native or naturalized environment. Most agree that heirloom varieties have the best flavor, look, and variety.

Open-pollinated (OP) refers to the plants ability to pollinate on their own to produce viable seed by insect, bird, wind, or other natural mechanisms. In a previous article “Seed Shopping” written by Eli Snyder, she notes that all heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms- some excellent varieties have been developed more recently. Open-pollinated seeds can be saved by gardeners provided the plants are appropriately separated from other varieties of the same plant. For example, if you want to save tomato seed, you must separate each tomato variety by at least 10’ to prevent crossing. If you save seed from varieties planted close together, the seed will likely produce strange looking fruit, not true to any variety you grew the previous year.

Consider local home and garden stores for your seed shopping, start making a seed wishlist, and get ready to plan your garden because it is that time of year to start ordering your seeds!

For resources, questions, or more info about this topic, call the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Caldwell County Center at 828-757-1290. You can also visit us anytime online.