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What To Consider Before Buying Seeds

What To Consider Before Buying Seeds

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

The bitter cold of the past few weeks has us dreaming of brilliantly colored flowers and produce ripening on the vine. While the payoff may be months away, it isn't too early to start gathering your thoughts, as well as the seeds you'll need to make that dream a reality. Seed starting isn't difficult, and in the cold of winter, burying seeds in soil and watching them sprout is a joyful reminder that winter will indeed end. If you've never started seeds, the benefits will turn you into a believer. But you can't plant seeds you don't have. Buying them is the first order of business.

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Choosing what to plant is the most fun – and potentially confusing – part of seed starting.

If you garden at all, you're likely on a few garden companies' mailing lists, and right about now colorful seed catalogs with luscious photos of blemish-free vegetables and flowers are filling your mailbox. Gather them up, pour yourself a favorite libation, settle in a comfortable chair, and start flipping pages. It's time to plan your garden.

If you've started seeds before you have an idea of what you like and what the garden and the gardener can handle. For the newbie, don't get overly ambitious and order too many seeds. Keep in mind the size of your garden and the limits of your time and energy. Seed catalogs are intentionally seductive, and fantasies about your fabulous future garden can make it hard to say when.

One way to avoid going overboard is to have a map of your garden. If you don't have a map, sketch one out, noting where north is, as well as any shady areas, to avoid planting sun-lovers such as tomatoes or peppers in those spots. Measure the length and width of the planting area. Compare the space you have with the spacing and mature sizes of what you want to grow. That gives you an idea of how many plants will fit in the area.

If you are exclusively growing annual vegetables and flowers from seed, your USDA Plant Hardiness zone isn't a priority, but if you want to grow perennial vegetables or fruit, you'll need to know the zone so you can compare it with the zone range of the plants you want to grow. The map will give you the average low winter temperatures you can expect in your area.

If you don't already know which USDA Plant Hardiness Zone you are in, check it here:

The American Horticultural Society's Heat Zone Map is also useful:

In the seed catalogs, look for an explanation of the abbreviations and symbols that accompany each plant entry. There should always be one for sun/shade needs. Others may indicate whether a plant is good for containers, attracts pollinators, or is resistant to certain diseases. These are helpful in narrowing down your choices for what will work best in your garden.

Another valuable piece of info is "days to maturity" or "days to harvest." This is the average number of days it takes a plant to grow from seed or transplant to harvest. Sometimes it is listed as early, mid-season or late season. It's only a guesstimate; weather and other conditions can skew those numbers.

Count backward from your last frost date and consult the catalog to determine the best time to start seeds, allowing enough time for germination, growth, and hardening off before planting in the garden. Don't know your last frost date? Find it at

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When buying from professional seed companies, it's a given that the seeds you buy will be fresh and packaged for the current year. That's not a given if buying seeds off eBay or Craigslist, or using donations from friends. Older seeds will have reduced germination rates, so you'll need to plant more seeds to reach your goal number of plants.

One last tip: Don't wait too long to order your seeds. Popular varieties sell out quickly.


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