Learning how to read the back of a seed package is an important step in the process of learning how to start garden seeds. The back of a seed package contains important information to help you grow vegetables and flowers successfully.
How to Read the Back of a Seed Package
Garden seeds were sold loose throughout the ages until the Shakers, an American religious sect, first packaged their seeds for sale in the 1800s. The idea quickly caught on until seed package design became an art unto itself. Before the age of photography, beautiful illustrations adorned paper packages to help gardeners imagine what the plants would look like. I have seed package illustrations hanging as artwork in my home; they truly are works of art!
Back in olden times, gardeners generally knew how to grow garden seeds. Information was passed along from parents to children, neighbor to neighbor, and knowing how to grow your own food was essential to survival. Today, with so many new gardeners planting their first vegetables and flowers from seeds, seed suppliers print the necessary information to help you successfully start and grow their seeds right on the back of the seed package.
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The Anatomy of a Seed Package: What the Package Tells You
Each seed package is a little different. Companies use different layouts and designs, but the essential information remains the same.
Above you can see the back of a seed package from American Meadow Seeds, a common seed supplier in the United States. This is an empty package of salvia seeds. I save the packages to transform into craft projects, so I happened to have several empty seed packages in my office for this article.
The parts on the back of a seed package include:
- The plant species name in capital letters at the top: SALVIA
- Variety name in smaller letters below: Bonfire.
- A description of the plant.
- A chart which tells you the days to germination, depth to sow, seed spacing, growing height and plant type (I’ll explain this below).
- Instructions on exactly how to plant the seeds.
- How to nurture and care for your young plants.
- Hints to enjoy your plants.
- A colorful map of the United States, which helps you understand when you can plant your seeds for best results.
- A link to more free information and the company’s website.
- At the bottom, a stamp which tells you what year the seeds were packed, and the last sell by date.
Let’s take each bit of information one by one so that you can understand how to read the back of a seed package.
Plant Species Name
Plants are named according to linnaean classification, a method of organizing botanical and biological specimens created by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century. Linnaean taxonomy is a consistent way to name plants so that no matter where you travel, if you state the botanical name, you are referring to the same plant. People like to give plants nicknames, so learning the botanical name, including the species name, helps you identify the correct plant.
Variety name tells gardeners more about the plant. Varieties can vary greatly in color, size and growing habits.
Even though it’s always a bit of marketing copy, do read the descriptive text. It gives you more clues as to when you can expect to see plants bloom and how big they get.
The chart in the center of the seed package in this example provides some of the most useful information.
- Days to Germinate means the number of days from when you plant a seed until it sprouts.
- Depths to Sow means how deeply you should push the seed into the soil. This is important. Some plants like to be near the surface. Some need light in order to germinate. Follow this direction as closely as you can.
- Seed Spacing tells you how far apart to plant your seeds. If you space them too closely together, you can always pull out extras and discard them, but planting them at the proper distance means that every seed can be used.
- Growing Height tells you how tall the mature plants will get.
Type tells you whether the plant is an Annual or Perennial. Annual plants complete their life cycle in one year from seed to maturity, flowering, and reproduction in one season. They are usually killed by a frost. Perennials may take more than one season to complete their life cycle.
Outdoor Planting Dates
In the salvia seed package example, the map of the United States shows gardeners throughout the 48 states when they can plant their seeds outside. The color bands roughly correspond to the dates in the chart below, although the temperature and gardening conditions can vary from year to year. Gardeners should take that into account when deciding when to plant seeds outside.
The Packed For and Sell By Dates
When buying discounted seeds, check the back of the seed package for the packed for date. This indicates the year when the garden seeds were packaged. If seeds are too old, they may not sprout, although if the seed package remains sealed it should still be viable. These dates come in handy when you find unopened packages of seeds and want to guess if they will germinate. You can always conduct a seed viability test to see if the seeds will sprout.
Below is another example so you can see how to read the back of a seed package applies to another brand. This is an example from Burpee seeds, a great seed company and one of my affiliate companies. It is from the back of a package of pumpkin seeds.
Instead of a chart, Burpee puts the important information in the upper left hand corner as a graphic. You can still read the back of the seed package in the same way. The gardening and cultivation information remains the same no matter where seed companies place it.
Learning how to read the back of a seed package takes a bit of getting used to, but once you realize that all of the important information you need to start you seeds successfully is there, you’ll be a pro at it.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.