How to choose the seed you need

Photo by Liz West

Seed catalogs and garden center seed shelves touting photos of glorious looking flowers and veggies are like eye candy for winter-weary souls. But with so many seed companies and options for what to grow, choosing seeds can feel a bit overwhelming!

There’s much to say about seeds, but we’ve pieced together just a few guidelines that can help you organize your thoughts when choosing your seeds this year.

Learn the language

Before you can make any decisions about which seeds to go with, it helps to have some familiarity with seed packet labeling. Deciphering the lingo on seed packets and catalog pages can be like trying to read another language!


Understanding the meaning of each of those elements is key to being able to choose the right plants for your specific situation. If you’re not yet fluent, don’t worry! There are a number of references online  that can help you quickly learn the terminology. See How to Read a Seed Packet from the UVM Medical Center’s Gardening Program. Some seed company websites include reference keys or clickable definitions for each seed characteristic.

Plan your space

Whether you’re using garden planning software or an old notebook, taking the time to plan out your garden can help avoid frustrating missteps along the way. Space restrictions, sun/shade, soil characteristics, design elements, yield, and crop rotation are all factors in determining which plants to grow, where to grow them, and how much seed you’ll need to purchase.

Pay attention to manufacturer specified spacing instructions and number of seeds per packet when making your choice. A comprehensive planting chart (like this one from High Mowing Seeds) is another useful tool for making decisions about what, where, and when to plant.

Timing is key

Back of High Mowing Organic Seeds packet for tomato seeds.On the front or back of most seed packets, and in catalog or online descriptions, you’ll find information on days to maturity, a rough estimate of the time it takes a given seed to go from planting to harvest. Maturity days vary wildly, from 25 days for a Cherry Belle Radish to 110 days for a Mammoth Sunflower!

Days to maturity helps you plan for successive plantings and to know when you need to get your plants in the ground based on your particular growing zone. If the seed is direct-sown, days to maturity is counted from date of germination. If the seed is started indoors, count from the date of transplanting. 

Once you have your seeds, you can create an easy planting schedule by organizing packets in a box by maturity date, card catalog-style, with divider labels for which week to plant. Voila!

Meet your needs

Perhaps you’ve decided that you’re going to take a shot at growing tomatoes this year. With dozens of tomato varieties to choose from, it’s important to think about what your desired end use will be.

Are you looking for cherry tomatoes that the kids can eat off the vine, juicy slicing tomatoes for your salads, or a high-yielding plum variety that you can use for sauce and canning?

Read the manufacturer descriptions of taste and best uses for each variety so that you end up with a harvest that meets the needs of your taste buds and your pantry.

Hybrid, heirloom, open-pollinate, what?

In a nutshell, open-pollinated seeds are bred using natural pollinating methods like insects and wind. 

Heirlooms are open-pollinated and come from seeds that have been handed down for generations. They are often hand-selected by gardeners for a particular desired trait. Some gardeners are of the opinion that heirlooms are more flavorful than hybrids, especially tomatoes.  

F1 or hybrid seeds have been artificially bred using genetics and selective breeding for specific plant traits. Hybrids tend to offer some combination of favorable traits including: low maintenance, early maturity, high yield, improved flavor, specific plant size, better disease resistance. Hybrids are not well-suited to seed saving, as they tend to pass on unpredictable traits when reproduced.

Know your source

Before making a purchase with a particular seed company, you may want to do a little research to find out how and where the seeds are grown. Some companies import seeds from multiple sources, while others grow everything themselves. Some companies utilize chemicals to deter pests and disease, while others employ organic growing methods.

Why pay the higher price for certified organic seeds? According to Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seeds,

“Conventional seed production is one of the most chemically intensive types of agriculture. Because seed crops themselves are not for human consumption, pesticide regulations are less stringent than for vegetable crops and therefore allow higher doses of potentially harmful chemicals…

Organic seed crops, in contrast, are managed with an eye toward preventing disease; more and more this is done in protected environments that reduce disease pressure, greatly reducing the need for harmful chemicals.”

Avoid the bad seed!

Saving seeds, whether from your plants or from a package from a previous season, is a great way to save money. But proceed with caution! Old seeds can be hit or miss depending on the type of plant, how long they’ve been sitting around, and in what conditions they’ve been stored. It’s a pity to throw away perfectly good seeds, but even more tragic to plant seeds that never emerge.

Cantelope seeds on a paper towel inside of a plastic bag.
Via Wikimedia

Be sure to check the expiration date before planting, and eliminate some of the risk by performing a simple seed germination test. All you’ll need are your old seeds, paper towels, and a few plastic bags:

  1. Choose 10 seeds from a packet that you’d like to test.
  2. Moisten a paper towel so that it’s wet but not sopping.
  3. Lay the seeds out on the towel with space in between.
  4. Cover with another wet paper towel.
  5. Place in a plastic bag, seal, and set in a warm location.
  6. Watch. Germination should be anywhere from 2-14 days, depending on the variety. Keep towel moist for those requiring longer germination times.
  7. Evaluate. If 1 out of 10 seeds sprout, that’s a 10% germination rate. If 8 out of the 10 sprout, that’s an 80% germination rate, and so on.

It’s ok to use seeds with low germination rates. Just be sure to plant enough of them to ensure you get the desired number of plants.

With carefully chosen seeds at your fingertips, you’ll be good and ready to get those hands in the soil when spring finally arrives.

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