Choosing the right seeds is the first step to a healthy harvest.
Growing your own herbs and vegetables is a great way to eat smart by controlling what’s on the table.
Because you can decide what type of soil mix, fertilizer, compost, pest control, etc. you use, you know exactly what you’re eating.
And seed selection is step number one on this green thumb journey.
But with so many options available at garden centers, nurseries, seed libraries, and online stores, it can be a bit daunting trying to figure out which seeds will do well in your garden. Especially if you are a beginner.
Below, four home gardening pros give an overview of the do’s and don’ts when shopping for seeds for a bounty harvest:
#1 Check your plant’s hardiness zone. “Before you buy seeds for your vegetable garden, you need to know what will flourish and what will die,” says certified master gardener Allison Davis. Just look up the USDA plant hardiness zone map online and it will tell you which zone you are in. Next, consider where you will plant these seeds. Wondering is it shady? It is sunny? If yes, how long? Do the plants get direct sunlight all day or only partially? For shadier areas, consider using carrots, beets, lettuce, etc. For sunnier areas, on the other hand, you can use tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc., Davis suggests.
#2 Consider your gardening experience. “Everyone starts somewhere, but you should be sure you’re buying the right seeds based on your ability, as some seeds require more knowledge of gardening to grow,” says Rebecca Sears, chief gardening expert at Ferry-Morse. “A lot of people dive straight into peppers and tomatoes — which can be a little finicky and can take ages to get a harvest,” says Cassie Johnston, an Indiana-based certified master gardener. Both Sears and Johnston recommend starting with plants that are easy to grow and quick to yield to build confidence in your gardening skills — like sunflowers, basil, lettuce leaves, radishes, spring onions, and zucchini.
#3 Don’t overlook seed age. “The age of the seeds can be really important. Sure, some seeds keep well for years, but others — like parsnips and carrots — have to be bought every year or they’ll have incredibly low germination rates,” says Johnston. So be sure to check the seed life of the strain you’re growing, as well as the seed age on the pack you buy, she adds.
#4 Talk to local experts. “Different strains work in different microclimates. Sometimes strains that grow well at my house don’t grow well at my neighbor’s house half a mile away,” says Johnston. So when choosing seed varieties, first talk to an expert at your local master gardeners club, a neighbor with a hardy garden, or even the vintage ones at the local hardware store, she suggests. “They have a wealth of knowledge about strains that will grow well in your area that big seed companies just won’t have,” she adds.
#5 Don’t rush the order. “I recommend taking your time when buying seeds,” says Megan Cain, a Wisconsin-based urban gardener and author of Smart Start Garden Planner: Your Step-by-Step Guide to a Successful Season. “I first go through my existing seeds and do an inventory. Then I read the seed catalogs and circle anything that looks interesting – work my way through each vegetable and really think about what I need or want,” shares the gardening educator.
#6 Read the label carefully. “Most seed packets include the name and a picture of the plant seed you’re buying, along with the plant type, so you know if what you’re buying is a vegetable or herb, etc.,” says Sears. On the back of a seed packet you will usually find planting instructions and suggestions, as well as important planting and growing information, including sun requirements, plant height and days to germinate. “Most importantly, your seed packet includes days to maturity/harvest so you can determine the best time to start your seeding for your specific zone,” says Sears. “If you’re unsure of the right time to plant your seeds based on your growing zone, you can refer to the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to ensure optimal success,” she recommends.
#7 Don’t fall for marketing jargon. “There’s a lot of marketing on these seed packets, so my biggest recommendation for beginners is to try and filter all of that out,” says Johnston. “Don’t get too caught up in heirlooms here and openly pollinated there. The best seeds for a new gardener are ones that they can access easily, that fit their budget, and will produce the edibles they like,” she adds.
However, if you want to delve deeper (pun unintended) into the different types of seeds, here are the basics:
- Hybrid: “Hybrid seeds are the result of crossing two different parent plants in a controlled environment. They are bred to select for specific desirable traits, such as color, sweetness, disease resistance, and uniformity,” says Cain. “Hybrid seeds have to be bought new every time because the hybridization often doesn’t ‘stick’ to the next generations. So if you wanted to save the seeds of a hybrid tomato plant, you probably wouldn’t get the same results in the next generation of plants,” notes Johnston.
- Open Pollinated/Heirloom: This type of seed is the opposite of hybrid. Rather than a person intentionally crossing two plants in a controlled environment, open-pollinated seeds are the result of natural pollination by insects, birds, wind, etc., Cain explains. “The downside here is that some of the heirloom or open-pollinated strains can be more difficult to grow because they weren’t bred for disease or insect resistance,” says Johnston.
- Bio: “Organic seeds are simply seeds harvested from a plant grown in a certified organic garden or farm,” says Johnston. “If you plan to have an organic garden, you can be sure that these seeds come from a plant that thrived genetically under organic growing conditions,” she adds.
- GMO: “Genetically modified seeds (GMO) are like hybridization, but on steroids. Here, the genetic code of the seed is actually modified in the laboratory to produce a beneficial outcome — typically resistance to herbicides or pesticides, so the plant can be sprayed heavily without damaging the crop,” explains Johnston. “GMO seeds are common on commercial farms, but not as common in home gardens,” adds the home gardening expert.
The biggest starting mistakes to avoid
Once you have the seeds, planting them properly is crucial as success in starting your seeds will determine the success of your crop. Here are the six most common mistakes to avoid when seed starting:
Mistake #1 Not reading the planting instructions. If you don’t, you may be planting the seeds at the wrong time or placing them in an environment where they may not grow, Davis says. So take a few minutes to read the planting guide and growing information carefully for a seamless gardening experience and optimal results.
Mistake #2 Not giving enough water. Unlike a fully established plant with a robust root system that can go a week without water, germinating seeds and seedlings need regular watering. Especially during the germination phase, so that the soil does not form an impenetrable crust, explains Johnston. “You don’t want them soaking wet, but they should always be comfortably damp,” she adds.
Mistake #3 Giving too much water. It might be hard to believe, given that water is essential for plant growth, but there is such a thing as too much of it. “Overwatering your plants can cause oxygen starvation, causing the roots to drown. So you want to make sure you’re using the right amount of water,” says Sears. “Your seed packet should give you a good indicator of how much water your plant needs,” she adds.
Mistake #4 Not watch out for airflow. It is important to have airflow around your seedlings to prepare them for severe weather conditions and to keep mold and fungus growth to a minimum. Johnston suggests using a small fan at low vibrations over your seedlings.
Mistake #5: Not enough light. “We look at these magazine photos of hardy seedlings sitting by a sunny window and we’re like, ‘Wow! I can do that!’ But the truth is, unless you have a very sunny and warm windowsill, you’ll probably need extra grow lights to sow the seeds indoors,” says Johnston. Once you have the grow light, make sure it’s placed just an inch above the top of the plants, she advises.
Mistake #6 Not potting the seedlings. Most seedlings will happily be transplanted into a larger pot once or twice before heading out into the garden. “This is particularly beneficial for nightshade crops like peppers and tomatoes,” says Johnston.
How to save seeds from your own garden
With proper storage, harvested seeds can often be used for more than one growing season. This not only gives you a starting signal for the next season, but also saves a few euros in your gardening budget.
“Keeping and storing seeds from your own garden is a great practice that can be done by both novice and advanced gardeners,” says Sears.
To preserve seeds from your homegrown fruits and vegetables, start by soaking them in water for a few days — swirling the water once or twice a day, Davis suggests. This will cause the seeds to sink to the bottom and be free of pulp.
After the seeds sink, rinse them with fresh water and let them dry. Once they’re completely dry, seal them tightly in containers and organize them however you like, Davis says.
“The moisture level in a seed really affects the viability of the seed, so keeping the moisture level relatively stable is critical to successful storage,” says Sears. She suggests keeping the seeds in a cool, dark, and dry place like a refrigerator.
It is also important to know that the seed harvesting method is different for different strains. “For example, a biennial plant like kale needs almost two full growing seasons in your garden before you can harvest seeds. However, coriander seeds can be harvested within a few months,” says Johnston.
The shelf life of the seeds also varies from variety to variety. For example, artichoke, beet, and radish seeds can last up to five years if stored properly. Leek or onion seeds, on the other hand, can only be kept for one year.
So make sure you look up information on each strain before delving into seed storage, advises Johnston.
Sears recommends using Ferry-Morse’s Stored Seed Viability Reference List to get a general idea of how long each of your seed varieties will last under the right storage conditions.