How to read seed packets for planting success

A seed packet is much more than just a pretty envelope.

This is a short biography that explains what a gardener needs to know in order to successfully cultivate the seeds involved.

And while companies differ in quality and marketing, they share an obligation to present an accurate picture of plant characteristics to the consumer.

We link to sellers to help you find relevant products. If you make a purchase through one of our links, we may earn a commission.

So, whether a tomato seed package has a realistic glossy picture or a simple drawing doesn’t really matter. It is printed information that we need to understand in order to make a buying decision.

how to read seed packets

If your ADD kicks in at the mention of the fine print, I feel your pain. However, knowing the details is the key to garden success, so let’s unpack the jargon!

Photo by Mike Quinn.

The following categories represent plant facts found on seed packages. Once you’re familiar with them, you can shop like a pro.

plant photo or illustration

Most, but not all, packages show an enticing picture of the plant at maturity.

It’s great for learning what different herbs look like, how big squash and melons should be before harvesting, and flower sizes and colors.

plant name

The full name of the plant appears prominently on the package, and includes the common name, cultivar, and Latin name—as in “Zinnia, Giant Cactus (Zinnia elegans).”

Photo by Nan Schiller.

The Latin name is particularly useful in comparing plants, as the common names often differ, and there are usually many varieties of a given species.

Plant details

Plants are typically described in terms of color, size, pollinators attracted, type of flower, crop produced, bedding use, and a myriad of additional features that make them attractive selections for the garden.

Photo by Mike Quinn.

Horticulture Company

The company (or companies) cultivating, harvesting, packing and distributing the product is identified. Where the seed was planted may or may not be visible.

Older companies will often tout their heritage by including the year of origination, hoping to garner your support by indicating their longevity.

Photo by Mike Quinn.

My best advice in terms of sourcing is: If you’ve had success with a product in the past, look for a company that makes it again next time planting season is around.

Note your favorites in a garden journal that you can have on hand when it’s time to shop.

price and weight

As opposed to buying sets, seedlings, or full-grown varieties, planting seeds is an inexpensive way to grow.

Package prices and weights are based on attributes such as cost and quantity of production. For example, you might pay the same amount for 25 lilies as you would for 10 lima beans.


You can see the following designations:

certified organic

This is a USDA designation for seeds produced by plants that were grown without chemicals using organic methods.

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Fair Trade

This label indicates that the seeds were produced in a socially responsible manner that meets certification standards, with a fair price paid to the grower in developing countries.

non GMO

Products with this label have not been genetically modified to improve performance. Certified organic products are non-GMO, as are those produced by companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge.

Heirloom or Open-Pollinated

A “straight species” that has been grown for generations and is not cross-bred.

Seeds can be collected year after year to produce the same variety.


A variety of two plants that has been bred through cross-pollination to retain the best characteristics of each.

Photo by Mike Quinn.

pack/sell by date

Like food products, seeds are best packaged fresh, and you want the current year’s crop for the best germination rate.

Look for a stamp with the current year to make sure they are viable. You can also see a specific month of expiry.

Depending on the type of plant and storage conditions, seed packets can last up to four years, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service. Keep them cool and dry for maximum longevity.

If you find old seeds for sale or in your shed, you can try them. But for full value investment, buy fresh.

lot number

This information identifies a specific batch, and is useful for tracking it in the event of a recall.


The type designation tells you how many growing seasons your plant will survive.

Annuals grow for one season and die.

Biennials grow for two seasons, bloom and usually die in another, although I’ve seen some live longer.
Perennials come year after year.

You may also find the words “hardy” and “tender”. Hardy annuals and perennials can withstand frost, but tender plants cannot.

Each has varying degrees, such as “semi-hard”, which can withstand the occasional frost, and “very tender”, which is too delicate to withstand any cold weather.

hardiness zone

Some packages may list the zones for which the plant is suitable.

If you don’t know your growing zone in the US, you can search for it using the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

Garden centers usually carry plants and seeds appropriate for their geographic regions. If you’re ordering from a catalog online, be sure to purchase products that are compatible with your region.

planting depth

A general rule of thumb is to plant no deeper than the diameter of the seed.

The shallowest planting is on top of moist ground with no soil, and the deepest is usually no more than an inch.

This information may be presented as a fraction, such as “1/4 inch.” Use your discretion, because it is better to sow too shallow than too deep. Seeds need air as well as moisture to germinate.

to thin

Once the plants have sprouted “seed leaves”, the first set of leaf-like protrusions, and “true” leaves, the first pair of true leaves, it is time to reduce crowding and remove any weak sprouts. Is.

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This is called thinning. Your package indicates how far apart the remaining plants should be, such as “thin to 6 inches.”


It’s also important to consider how much daylight your plants will need.

Full-sun plants do best with six hours of morning sun.

If the package says they can tolerate shade, that means they will do best in sun but will also grow in shade.

And partial-shade means the plants need to be in a location that gets some sunlight, preferably in the morning, before shade casts them into shade for the afternoon.


Knowing the height of plants is essential to planning a layered garden in which tall types anchor the back of a planting bed behind an array of progressively shorter varieties.

Pay attention to descriptions such as “giant” and “dwarf” when selecting.

germination days

If your package says “up to 5 to 10 days,” that means you can get sprouts as early as five days after planting.

However, within the above range, this also means that it may take closer to 10s or slightly longer.

This is an estimate, and soil, light, moisture and temperature conditions all play a role in the length of the germination period.


When a plant has grown to its full height with multiple leaves and stems, it is mature. At this point it can bloom, produce crops, and complete its life cycle.

Knowing the time from germination to maturity is useful for planning events such as when flowers may be ready for bouquets, and crops may be ready to harvest.

direct seeding

Direct sowing is sowing in the ground outside.

It is generally advised to wait until all danger of frost has passed. Here in the Northeast, that’s usually late April.

start indoors

Instead of sowing directly outside, you can start seeds indoors.

The packages describe when to do this, coinciding with outdoor planting after all danger of frost has passed.


This section outlines the time during which you can expect your plants to bloom, such as early spring or June through August.

By choosing plants with different bloom times, you may be able to create a continuously blooming garden to enjoy from spring through fall.

pre planting preparation

Some seeds have particularly tough coats and need a little help to germinate.

If you see “modification needed,” sand them gently before planting. Some seek “stratification”, a process of layering in moist soil. Others may require soaking.

There are all sorts of ways to get them open enough to start sprouting. Without the preparation described, they may never germinate.


May include information on how and when to harvest edible plants such as herbs, vegetables, melons, and berries.

It is essential to pick produce at its peak for good health as well as best flavor and texture.

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Notes on harvesting technique can be helpful to prevent potentially damaging a plant that is still producing.

difficulty level

You may see the words “Easy Development” on the packages. This is to be taken with a grain of salt because, as we said, there is no guarantee that your soil, light, moisture and weather conditions will mimic the ideal growing conditions for any given plant.

If you find varieties that are moderately hardy, keep that in mind and be prepared to plant extra, just in case.

soil moisture

There are three main types of soil: sand, silt, and clay. Often this list is extended to include chalk, loam and peat. Please see the Gardener’s Path article, “Understanding the Soil in Your Backyard,” for an in-depth examination of the topic.

For now, suffice it to say that different plants require different types of soil, with many only needing “average well-draining soil,” as noted on the package.

Knowing your soil type will help you choose the right plants. This can be done by sending a sample to your local extension service, or by purchasing a home test kit.

As for moisture, the package will tell you if your plant needs frequent watering because it likes “wet feet,” or if it prefers to dry out completely between waterings.

If your packet, as shown in the picture in this article, does not discuss water needs, it may be able to thrive on naturally provided moisture.

This is the case with many native plants as well as “drought tolerant” varieties. These are excellent for xeriscaping.

Drought-tolerant plants can handle severe water shortages, but feel free to water them if they look wilted.

taking charge

It’s easy to get attracted to the flashiest packages, but it’s the information written on them that we need to read and use.

Photo by Mike Quinn.

That way, we can take charge of our gardens and buy products that will give us what we want.

Whether your passion is a midsummer crop of zucchini and carrots or a garden full of night-blooming moonflowers, knowing that the plants we grow provide fragrant flowers and a healthy harvest all season long.

And remember, when you are lucky with a plant, make a note in your garden journal and look for that type again next year.

You are now ready to plan your plots, buy some seeds, and start planting with confidence!

We’d love to hear what plants you’ll be planting in your garden this year. Tell us in the comments section below.

For more tips, check out some of these guides:

Photos by Mike Quinn and Nan Schiller © Ask the Experts, LLC. All rights reserved. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on January 11, 2018. Last updated on April 5, 2023. Top photo by Mike Quinn without credit. Other uncredited photos via Shutterstock.