De-Mystifying Seed Catalogs and Seed Packets

For some enthusiastic gardeners, the seed catalog is a giant wish list, with nearly every seed variety circled, regardless of the size of the vegetable garden they’ll be planted in! But for others, the array of tomato varieties, mysterious codes and symbols next to plant names, and figuring out how much space everything will take up can be dizzying.

Time for a gardener to get giddy!

Time for a gardener to get giddy!

The best place to start is to think about what you like to eat, and -if you had a garden last year- what grew well and what didn’t. Plant way too many radishes? Did zucchini take over half the bed, stunting your cauliflower? Turns out your kids couldn’t get enough swiss chard?

Once you’ve created a list of what you like to eat, think about the time and space invested in growing – this information will be on your seed packet or in the catalog description. Although most tomato varieties can take 2-3 months to mature after transplanting, many agree that there’s nothing better than the taste of a home-grown tomato and it’s a must-have for their vegetable garden. Are you enchanted by the different colors of eggplant but only eat it twice a year, when your partner makes his famous eggplant parmesan? That might be better purchased at a farmers’ market, leaving the space and time in the garden for your daily salad greens.

Transporting precious cargo! Just-harvested spring vegetables are going home for dinner.

Transporting precious cargo! Just-harvested spring vegetables are going home for dinner.

When you have an idea of what you want to grow, think about your seed-starting setup (parts 1 and 2 here) and the time you have available. Do your pepper seeds rarely germinate at home? For seeds like peppers that require quite a bit of heat to germinate, it might be time to invest in a seedling heating mat or moving the seed-starting area to a warmer spot in your home. Or, decide that you’ll buy pepper seedlings at your local plant sale and start seedlings that will germinate at lower temperatures, such as kale, at home. How to know what temperature is required for germination? In many cases, it’s on your seed packet! Check out our video, How to Read a Seed Packet to make sure you aren’t missing any important information! 

Some seeds, such as peppers, require very warm soil temperatures to sprout. Once the seeds germinate, you can turn off the seedling heating mat or move to a slightly cooler location.

Some seeds, such as peppers, require very warm soil temperatures to sprout (indicated by the toothpick). Once the seeds germinate, you can turn off the seedling heating mat or move to a slightly cooler location.

Some seeds are best directly sowed right in the ground. These include lettuce, root vegetables (carrots, radishes, beets), legumes (peas and beans), cucurbits (melons, squash, cucumbers) and corn. Why? In many cases, the delicate root systems of these plants can be damaged when transplanting outdoors. They may also germinate more reliably or quicker when directly sowed. The recommended method will be right on your seed packet. Direct-seeding in Chicagoland usually happens mid-late spring for cool-season crops or late-spring-early summer for warm-season crops.

Most seed catalogs will have a key to the codes somewhere in the book or online, but in case they don’t, or if you’re looking at seeds at the garden center and can’t remember what F1 means, here’s a quick guide:

Open-pollinated, Heirloom and F1 Hybrid Seeds

Pelleted seed- seed that is covered in a clay-like coating, to making direct-sowing through a seeding machine or tool easier and more uniform

Disease resistance codes

Days to maturity- number of days to harvest after transplanting outside or, in the case of direct-sowing seeds outside, after germination

Tomato: indeterminate vs. determinate

Bush type- compact plants that don’t require additional trellising or support (example: some varieties of beans and cucumbers)

Pole, Climbing- vining plants that require additional trellising, support or space to sprawl (example: other varieties of cucumbers and beans)

Lettuce: butterhead, crisphead, romaine and leaf

Slow-Bolting- slower to produce a flower stalk, often resulting in bitter leaves throughout the rest of the plant

Sweet corn: se, sy, su, sh, shA hybrids