Packets sport pictures of mature plants or produce
image by DRW & Associates Inc, Robert H. MohlenbrockUSDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Each year just after the New Year, the mail order catalogs arrive with photographs of lush blooms. Garden center racks of colorful seed packets beckon. Prices are so reasonable and the choice is so wide that most gardeners make one or two early purchases. While there are bargains and some seeds do need to be started early, most gardeners learn to temper their enthusiasm with caution when it comes to buying seeds, especially very early in the season.
Plan your garden before shopping for seeds. Take into account the space you have, its soil and exposure (how much sun it gets) before choosing varieties of flowers or vegetables that may be too expansive or demanding for your garden. Make a list of problems, like rambunctious children or ravenous neighborhood rabbits, to consider when choosing varieties for your garden. Buy only seeds that you have the garden space, time and talent to grow to maturity.
Choose seeds only from reputable companies. Seeds are living organisms, each containing a complete plant. They must be harvested only when mature and stored in a cool environment with a fairly low (50 percent) humidity (something akin to the vegetable bin in your refrigerator) in order to be vital when spring arrives. Not all companies treat seeds like royalty but those who guarantee a germination rate of 80 percent or higher are generally doing their job correctly.
Look for seed packets that have complete information, including the name of the plant, the company's physical address and contact information (often just a web address), a description of the plant and explanation of cultural requirements. This is a lot of information for a small paper envelope so most seed companies print charts on seed packets, often including information like containing days to germination, spacing, seed depth and days to maturity. Packets also generally have information on when and how to plant seeds, what they will look like at maturity and harvesting details for vegetables.
Find seeds that are marked for use in the current season. Some seeds, like broccoli, cauliflower and tomato may remain healthy for years and others, like corn and spinach, lose vigor after one growing season. Play it safe by using seeds that are marked either with harvest dates or "use by" dates that are no longer than a year in the past or the future. The "lot numbers" shown on packets refer to how early in the growing season they were harvested. "Lot 1" seeds are the first harvested and first to appear in garden centers in late winter. Later lots may be just as vigorous as the lot 1 group but may have just missed the early sales. They may be fine for use the next year---but may also be a gamble.
Buy known varieties and avoid illegal, endangered or invasive species. The gardener who unwittingly plants a magnificent purple loosestrife or an impressive kudzu vine may end up being drummed out of the neighborhood and, in some states, fined for introducing invasive or banned species. The unethical collection of seeds from endangered species may hasten the end of a treasured wildflower. Reputable companies do not offer these plants or seeds. Check your state's regulations and avoid buying seeds for such species for your garden.