How to read a seed packet

Seed catalogs are pouring into mailboxes and seed racks are showing up in garden centers. We are already mentally growing next spring’s garden – dreaming, planning, considering, and then finally selecting.

Many seed companies do a terrific job of providing useful tips, but sometimes seeds arrive with nothing but the name of the plant on the package.

Rose Marie Nichols McGee, owner of Nichols Garden Nursery (
grows the seeds, cooks with the vegetables grown from them, selects the best varieties, and writes the catalog and seed packets based on her first hand knowledge.

McGee said that in addition to the description of the plant, look for a variety of information that you need to have in order to grow the best plants.

Planting depth: Seeds are covered to their own depth. Tiny, dust-like seeds are not covered; they are just pressed into pre-moistened seed starting soil. Thin, flat seeds such as lettuce and peppers are planted on the surface of ruffled up soil, then the soil is just brushed and the seeds are watered.

Germination temperature: McGee said this is an important factor for home gardeners since commercial growers can control soil temperatures with thermostats and home gardeners tend to start seeds on windowsills. For example, pepper seeds sprout best when the soil is 77 to 80 degrees and kale seeds will sprout at temperatures between 45 and 85. Put some heat under your windowsill pots.

Number of days to germinate: Most seeds produce little green shoots within 5 to 12 days if the heat and light conditions provided are optimal. Take them off the heat source as soon as they emerge.

McGee said, Peppers and gourds can be slow because they have to have 77 to 80 degree soil. Then you have to get them out into the ground before the roots get too big.

Growing soil temperature: Plant roots either need cool, warm or hot temperatures to grow well. Kale, broccoli and other cool season vegetables need 60-65 degree soil. A $10 battery operated, instant read thermometer comes in handy for checking when the soil is warm enough to put transplants in.

Tomato seeds can be planted in pre-warmed soil, said McGee. Make a little depression in the dirt, plant the seed and cover it with a plastic milk carton with the bottom cut out. As the seedling grows, surround the stem with soil.

Days to maturity: McGee said that this is the number of days from when the transplants are put into pots or into the ground and when you can use the produce. Many gardeners assume it is the number of days between seed planting and harvest.

When and how to transplant: Some transplants can tolerate a frost and others cannot. McGee gardens in zone 7 Oregon where the last frost date is April 15 so her advice is accurate for Muskogee gardens.

Spacing: How far apart you put the plant seedlings when putting them into the ground is one key to their future health. Plant them too close together and they can fall prey to insects and diseases. Plant them too far apart and you waste space where weed seeds can flourish.

Location: For healthy plants, situate them where they receive optimal light. Some need full sun (a minimum of 6-hours a day) and others need less (part-shade).

I offer a lot of disease resistant varieties, including heirlooms, hybrids, fusarium resistant, open pollinated, early, late, and new varieties, McGee said. I look for performance, disease resistance and flavor when growing trial seeds. I don’t want any plants that die in the middle of the season.

Contact Nichols: 800-422-3985 and the catalog is at


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