Winter is the glorious time of year when seed catalogs start arriving in your mailbox. Browsing these catalogs with a cup of tea by your side is like a breath of Spring. The photos and drawings spark your imagination for what Summer could offer. This is the time to read the descriptions of the seed varieties with your growing conditions in mind.
What is Your Growing Zone?
Here’s what I mean. I grow in Zone 4b. This means that my plants have to be hardy to about -30 degrees Fahrenheit. But honestly, that’s about all it means. It doesn’t tell me how humid or dry my summers are, it doesn’t tell me how long my days are in the summer, it doesn’t tell me how strong my winds are, it doesn’t tell me how hot it gets during my growing season, it doesn’t tell me what plant diseases are the most prevalent in my area.
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These are all things you need to know when choosing your seeds even if you will only be choosing annuals (those plants which mature and die in one season). My experience is that plants in the seed catalogs or on display in my local garden center, have not been tested anywhere near me. If you have a local seed supplier, they will be your best source. A local seed supplier will be producing seed from plants grown close to your location. The major seed companies will not.
If this is your first year growing from seed, don’t be discouraged if your plants don’t reach the heights or produce the bounty that the package describes. Sometimes you just have to try them, even multiple seasons, before you really know how they will perform in your particular garden.
It may be best to find your garden’s most restrictive qualities and study the seed packages with those qualities in mind. What do I search for specifically for my garden?
Attention to Seed Descriptions
First I look for how long the plant takes to mature. For peppers and tomatoes, the time to maturity is stated as transplant time—time from the when they are planted in the ground to maturity. Others will be from seed to maturity, such as corn.
My growing season is so short, 90 days or less, I really can’t grow plants that need a longer season, such as watermelon. In recent years, I have found short season corn so at least that is an option for me now. Well, it’s an option for most years.
The next thing I consider is heat tolerance. If a seed packet says the variety is heat tolerant, I know they are usually talking about growing that variety in the southern states. In the north, my high temperatures in the summer rarely get over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ll have to take precautions with extra watering during those hot days, but I rarely have trouble with heat.
Disease resistance is another thing to consider. If you have certain plant diseases that are common in your area, you will find seed packets that tell you what the plants are resistant to. Pay attention to those.
The one thing I have found that I can’t shop for, is tolerance to low humidity. We are considered the high desert and that low humidity can really affect how plants grow. This is the one thing that only experimentation will tell you. If you have humid conditions, pretty much everything will grow. If you are growing in a humid area, this is probably something I don’t need to tell you. For those of you in the desert states, get ready to experiment with your seed varieties.
Onions are the one thing you’ll need to pay attention to how long your days are. Here in the north we grow “long day” varieties. If you live anywhere else, you’ll either grow “day neutral” or “short day” varieties. Be sure to read the descriptions for onions carefully so you choose the correct onions for your day length.
Have Fun Choosing Seeds
Other than considering growing conditions, choose seed varieties that you enjoy. That means flowers that you love, and vegetables that you eat on a regular basis. I’ve also experimented with some varieties that I’ve always wanted to try but can’t find in the stores. This includes some Asian varieties of herbs, or tomatoes which are dark in color.
You almost can’t go wrong buying seeds from your local garden center. Many garden centers will sell seed packets. They will have gone through the different varieties and picked the ones that will grow in your area. Depending on the garden center, they may even have some interesting choices that you haven’t seen before. Just be sure to get there early so you’ll have enough time to sow them, get them growing, and set them into the garden at the right time.
What about the seed packets that you bought last year, or two years ago, and you still have a few seeds left? You’ll need to clear those seed packets out every year. Before you do, though, check a seed viability chart such as the one below.
You can find multiple charts like this one on the internet. Remember that these charts are dependent on how the seeds are stored. If you’ve stored them in a place that either gets wet or cold, the chart may not help you much.
Testing seed viability is actually quite easy. The best time to do this is several weeks before you need to start your seeds. The ideal way is to take ten seeds and place them in a damp (not dripping wet) paper towel. Fold or roll up the paper towel, put it in a plastic bag to minimize evaporation, and place the unsealed bag in a warm place.
Check daily that the paper towel remains moist, and after about five days, unroll it each day to check for germination. After about ten days, or once the optimal germination time listed on the seed packet has passed, count how many seeds have sprouted. Since you’ve sprouted ten seeds, it makes it an easy calculation to figure out the percentage of seeds that germinated. If you have only five seeds that sprouted, then that packet has a fifty percent viability. Now, you’ll know to plant twice as many seeds as you’ll need, since half of them likely will not sprout.
Make sure to mark the germination rate on your seed packet. Another suggestion is to mark clearly on your seed packet, what year you purchased it. I’ve started to mark all my packets with a year because sometimes either the packet isn’t marked at all, or it is marked in such a way that it’s easy to tear off when you open the packet. So always write the year and add the germination rate if you’ve figured that out with the paper towel trick.
One of the things I’ve done, is look for seed catalogs that only provide a few seeds per packet. That way I don’t have a lot of seeds left over. Usually, though, you’ll have lots of seeds left over to test next year.
Seed Growing Options
Remember that starting plants from seed can have varying results. If you aren’t careful, the seeds either won’t sprout, or the plants will die when they are still tiny. In these cases, remember that you have a garden center close by. They may not have the varieties you were hoping for, but it’s better to have something to grow. Don’t get discouraged if this happens, instead look for those seeds that are on sale. That way you can regroup and be better prepared for next year!