Well-written seed packet information tells us what we need for successful seed sowing but it’s not always easy to understand. Whether you are a beginner growing perennial or annual flowers, herbs, or vegetables, I’ll walk you through an example and show you what you need to know.
If you want to know when it’s too late in the season to start seeds, this shows you what you need to know.
Reading Seed Packets For Sowing Tips
Welcome to the wild west of seed packets. Because seed companies do not share a standard format (size, layout, information), it’s not always easy for beginners to find what they need to know when shopping for seeds.
Plus, the desired information—if provided—can vary greatly.
Some provide us with well-researched, thorough and helpful tips and information—packing an incredible amount of useful info in a small space—and others are frustratingly vague.
This lack of information doesn’t mean the seeds aren’t viable—they may be fine—but without the top tips from experienced seed developers and growers, we may miss out on key growing tips.
With all the advantages to sowing from seed including cost savings, variety—thousands more choices than a plant nursery can provide—and control over timing (winter veggies, anyone?) we need to get things right.
I’ll walk you through the information on a well-written seed packet and show you what to look for when selecting seeds to buy.
How to Read Seed Packets
A well-written seed packet is going to tell you what to expect and what you need to do to achieve it.
Basic Overview of Plant
Let’s start with the front of this packet.
The first thing you notice is the big photo of the watermelon and the basic identifiers:
Burpee, Organic, Watermelon, Allsweet, USDA Organic, $2.49
For me, seed packets must include an image of the plant to be helpful. Consider that when buying seeds.
I know excellent seed companies that do not provide images but it really is a deal-breaker for me. When I’m looking through hundreds of packets in my seed boxes, I can find what I want in an instant if the photo is there. And, when I just have the Botanical or common name, I may not recall what it is.
Related: How to Categorize Seeds
- Burpee (B) As you get more experienced you’ll soon know which seed companies you like. Some grow their own seeds, others are distributors, and often a combination of both.
My favorites are local, organic seed growers. This way I know the seeds are appropriate for my gardening zone, and the plants have been successful in organic gardens (like mine).
Plant Name and Traits or Characteristics
- Watermelon Allsweet (C)
- Oblong type (A) | This watermelon has an unusual shape.
- USDA Organic (D) | The seeds are certified organic.
Along with the common plant name you may also see what variety it is (a cultivar or cultivated variety).
Sandia Allsweet is the botanical name of this watermelon seed.
This has a very basic introduction to botanical names if you want to know more.
Seeds may also be labelled as heirloom, open-pollinated, or hybrid (F1 or F2).
- Whether heirloom or open-pollinated, they are reliable for future seed saving.
- Hybrids provide valuable traits or disease resistance but the seeds do not reproduce true to the parent plant.
That means they are good for growing but a gamble for seed-saving. I grow all of the above.
This explains the basic differences between hybrid, heirloom, and open-pollinated seeds.
In some instances the actual seed may have been specially prepared or treated.
- For example, you can buy tiny carrot seeds on a sowing tape (for easier sowing) or a seed may have some sort of added coating (pelleted) for easier handling.
You will also want to know if it’s an annual, biennial, or perennial.
Plant Life Cycles
Annuals complete their life cycle in one growing season. The term is used both for plants that only have a one-year life cycle and for plants that could live more years in warmer places, but not where you live—which usually means they are not frost-tolerant.
Perennials have a multi-year life cycle and, if suited to our hardiness zone, will go dormant in the winter and resume growth in spring—year after year.
Biennials take two years to complete their life cycle (from germination to seed production). Grown as vegetable crops, we treat them as annuals and harvest them in the first year. Grown for flowers or seed production, we leave them for the winter and a second year of growth.
Description / Selling Points / Expectations
Often an overview of the plant is listed somewhere on the packet.
This usually lists key traits or selling points that make this plant special in its group.
Info may include whether the plant is frost hardy or tender, when and how it blooms or fruits, unexpected colors or shapes, if it is recommended for container growing, how long to expect from seed to harvest, and whether it attracts particular pollinators and so on.
The size of the mature plant and spacing needs usually appear with the sowing instructions.
Find Your Frost Dates & Hardiness Zone
Average Frost Dates | Use this calculator at Almanac.com. Enter your city and state or province to find your first and last frost dates and number of frost-free days.
Ecoregion | Learn about the native plant and animal species and environmental conditions specific to your region to better understand why your garden choices matter.
Learn More: Understanding Frosts & Freezing For Gardeners
Price / Weight / Quantity / Lot Number
You will learn this as you go: the amount of seeds you get in a packet will vary greatly, depending on what it is. It could be few or thousands!
- Often the total weight of the seeds is listed but this is not really informative if you have no idea how heavy each individual seed is.
- When a seed is new and expensive (and often patented) there might only be 10 in the packet. And, if germination rates are moderate (80%), this means you can’t expect all 10 to sprout.
- Other plants like poppies that produce prolific amounts of seeds may come with hundreds of tiny seeds in one packet for the same price.
Read carefully. Thankfully, if the quantity is (shockingly) low it will be mentioned on the packet. That’s a seed company smartly playing offence.
Seed viability diminishes with time. The fresher the seeds, the more likely they are to germinate.
Some packets list the date the seeds were packaged as well as the Best-by-Date.
Because germination gradually declines, I always test seeds to know the germination rate.
If I have an older pack of seeds that is germinating at 50%, I simply sow extra to make up for it. The ones that do grow are still perfectly fine.
Back of Seed Packet
Again, not all seed packets are the same but the sowing instructions are usually on the back.
Sowing Conditions and Traits
Sun – Soil – Water – Temperature
This is where Burpee is really helpful:
This description tells you what to expect with this type of watermelon: how large it should get, what it will taste like, and the fact that it’s resistant to two common problems: fusarium wilt and anthracnose.
Sowing Info (F) | When to plant the seeds (these ones are best in spring, after danger of frost has passed), how far apart to plant the seeds, how to tuck them in (“cover with 1″ of fine soil”), and when to expect them to pop up (germinate). That’s a lot of good information packed into a few sentences.
Indoor or Outdoor Sowing
These watermelon seeds shown here are sown directly outdoors.
Other seed types may come with instructions to start them indoors before your last frost to get a jump start on the season. This is crucial if your outdoor growing season is shorter than the time it takes an annual to mature, fruit, and ripen.
The ebook Seed Starting for Beginners: Sow Inside Grow Outside is available now.
Special Treatment Before Sowing
Other types of seeds sometimes require special preparations prior to sowing.
- Pre-soaking | Some seeds germinate much better after a few days of soaking in moist towel.
- Scarification means to sand or nick the shell of the seed to make it more penetrable to water. Pre-soaking is also a scarification method.
- Stratification is exposure to conditions like cold and or dampness to mimic how nature germinates that seed.
Some seed packets also list germination rates, which is very helpful for fussy seeds and helps put the gardener at ease.
For example, a germination rate of 80% means that for every 10 seeds you plant, you should expect 8 of them to actually sprout.
Growing Conditions, Sowing Tips, Harvest or Days to Maturity
I’m lumping these together because sometimes a whole bunch of information is combined into one sentence or diagram.
Diagram (G) | Seed companies that show picture instructions win big points with me. It’s a quick way to understand that:
- The watermelons will need full sun.
- The seeds are planted 1″ deep.
- You can put 2-3 seeds near each other in a group.
- From the time the seeds have sprouted, it should take approximately 90-104 days until you can harvest the fruit.
The Days to Maturity or Days to Harvest time estimate is just that—an estimate. Whether you buy the same seeds in one hardiness zone or another, that information will be the same despite differences with climate, weather, and growing conditions. In some instances it may refer to seed to harvest timing. In other instances it may be transplant to harvest. Who knows!
That said, days to maturity or days to harvest, even as rough estimates, are helpful for determining if you have enough time available to grow the crop between your last and first frost dates.
Seed Germination Test
If you want to check if seeds are viable prior to sowing in soil, use this seed viability test. It will also give expected germination rates.
Do I Have Time to Grow This?
Sample Planting Schedule
10 days for seeds to germinate
+ 104 days for the watermelon to mature
= 114 days from seed to maturity, plus extra time to ripen (could be days or weeks).
- Look up the typical first frost date where you live (example: October 1).
- Count back 114 days (example: October 1 minus 114 days = June 9).
- Go back another 14 days to allow for cooler weather or mishaps. (May 26)
- The latest you could safely start the watermelon seeds is May 26 (unless you have polytunnels or some other way of extending the season).
And, with this sowing date in mind, make sure your crop likes that planting time. We know the watermelons can be started in spring after last frost so they’ll be fine in June (where I live). Some crops such as peas and kale prefer cooler weather and are better off in the early spring or fall—always check what seed growers in your area recommend.
If a seed packet doesn’t have all this information, at least you know now what questions to ask before you start digging.
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ListenNEW! Click play to listen:
- Cheers for the seed companies that provide thorough, clear information.
- If a seed packet does not tell you what you need to know, do your homework first.
- Make sure you like the company, their growing practices, and ensure that the seeds are appropriate for your area and non-invasive.
- If you are visually-centric person like I am, buy packets that provide an image of the plant.
- Check how long the plant will take from seed to table and make sure you have enough time before first frost.
- Take note of the recommended growing conditions (including sun) and needs of the mature plant to be sure the seeds will be happy in your garden.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
Seed Starting for Beginners
Sow Inside Grow Outside
by Melissa J. Will
NEW EDITION | Everything you need to get started with indoor seed starting for indoor and outdoor plants. Grow what you want—any time of year!
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