Q: I want to plant vegetables from seed this year to save money, but I find the information on seed packets confusing. What information do I need to know to be successful?
A: Growing a garden from seed can be confusing when you are just starting out, but there are benefits. Growing plants from seed is rewarding and cost effective. A packet of seeds can produce 20 or more plants for the cost of one potted plant. You have a wider variety to choose from, including unique and heirloom varieties, and the seed will be available when you are ready to plant.
Seed packets are the instruction manuals for the plant. From them you can learn information about when and how to sow the seeds, days to germination, growth habits, sun and soil requirements and a description of the plant. Prior to use, seed packets should be stored in a cool, dry spot away from direct sunlight.
The following are terms and definitions for seed starting, whether you are starting seedlings indoors or direct sowing seeds outdoors.
Annuals need to be replanted every year. An annual only lives one season.
Cool season vegetables
Cool season varieties can stand the frost and thrive in cooler weather. They can be planted in early spring then again in fall. Examples include lettuce, spinach, and peas.
Indicates the number of days from planting to maturation or harvest. The wording may say ‘days to germination’ and ‘days to harvest’.
Describes the appearance of the plant when mature, including color, height and blooming period.
Plants that are developed to resist diseases inherent to the species. Choosing a disease resistant variety will lessen the plant’s susceptibility. On a vegetable seed packet you may see: F for Fusarium Wilt, V for Verticulum wilt or TMV for tobacco mosaic virus.
Plant the seeds outdoors where you want them to grow. Follow the instructions for seed planting depth and spacing.
F1 and OP
On the back of vegetable seed packets, each variety is labeled “F1” or “OP”. This is important only if you plan to save seeds from the plants that you grow. Seed from F1 hybrid plants will not likely breed true for future crops, so buy new seeds every year. Varieties labeled “OP” (open-pollinated) will grow true to variety from seeds produced by the plants that you grow. These seeds may be saved.
Germination or Seeding Rate
Indicates what percentage of seeds will germinate or the number of plants you can expect from one packet. Average seed life ranges from one to three years and is specified on each seed packet or with a ‘sell by’ date. Older seeds may still be viable but have a lower rate of germination.
Our average growing season is 152 days and most of Colorado Springs is in Zone 5. Use this information to help you pick seed varieties that grow quickly or start the seeds indoors to get a head start. If you plant perennials, use the Climate Zone guidelines on the back of the seed packets to identify plants that are hardy to Zone 5 or lower.
The amount of light a plant needs to thrive. The circle symbol indicates full sun or 6-8 hours a day. The half circle symbol represents part sun/shade or 3-4 hours of sun a day.
The seeds are not treated with pesticides. Look for the USDA Organic symbol or the wording ‘100% Certified Organic’.
Perennials live two or more seasons. Many die back in the winter, but their roots survive and new plants bloom in the spring.
Plant after chance of frost
According to Colorado State University extension records, the average last frost in Colorado Springs falls on May 6 and the first frost on October 6.
Usually specifies the type of soil (sandy, loam) and moisture requirements for plant growth. Includes information on how to sow the seeds – how deep, in rows or mounds, with trellises or supports, etc.
Some seeds can use a head start on the outdoor growing season. Use seed starting equipment to grow seedlings indoors and transplant to the garden when indicated.
Weeding and thinning are essential to growing strong, healthy plants. When seedlings emerge, pull out any weeds and thin the seedlings until the leaves of the plant next to them don’t touch. This allows for light and air circulation. As plants grow, thin to the spacing specifications on the seed packet.
Warm season vegetables
Warm season varieties need warm temperatures day and night to produce. Examples include tomatoes and peppers. Plant after all danger of frost is past and the days and nights are consistently warm.
Contributed by Valerie Smith, Certified Colorado Gardener. (Seed packet photo by Carey Harrington.)