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Decoding Seed Packet Language

By Judy Kunz, Colorado Master Gardener

Illustration: clipart-library.com

For some of us, the wording on a seed packet seems to speak a foreign language. Listed below are a few of the more common terms that are used and their meanings.

Annual: Annual plants grow, bloom and die within one season.

Biennial: Seedsproduce a plant that blooms in the second year and then dies at the end of that season.

Botanical Name: A worldwide method of classifying plants in Latin that is unique to each plant. In practice since the 1700s, it is used to describe a plant for its physical characteristics like shape and color and many times includes the country of origin. Example: The name of the genus and species of a carrot is Phaseolus vulgaris.

Days to germination: Number of days after planting until seed sprouts.

Frost date: In this area the average frost-free date is around the middle of May. The actual date can vary considerably, depending on weather conditions in a particular year.

GMO: Genetically modified seeds come from plants that are bred at the genetic level. GMO seeds are only available commercially.

Heirloom seeds have been around since the ancient beginnings of agriculture. It is generally accepted that the varieties that produce these seeds have been in existence for at least 50 years.

Hybrid seeds were developed in the 1930s and are produced from combining pollen of two different plants of the same species with the goal of improving yield, uniformity, vigor and disease resistance. Seeds from hybrid plants do not reproduce true to the parent plant.

Open pollination occurs when pollen is carried by wind, insects, birds or humans. Open pollinated plants are more genetically diverse.

Packaged for season: Seed viability diminishes over time. The fresher the seed, the better the germination rate. Seeds that are planted beyond the “use by” date may very well be viable but their germination rate declines with time. 

Perennial seeds produce plants that continue growing every year. Tops may die back in winter but the roots remain viable if they are hardy enough for the zone in which they are growing. 

QR Code: Scanning this code with a smart phone will yield more information about the seed.

USDA hardiness zone describes the climate zone which a plant can tolerate. Any number higher than 5 on a seed packet indicates a climate zone in which plants would have a tough time over wintering in this area.

USDA Organic seed is certified as being grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides and/or fertilizers.

Seed can be a significant investment. For information on storing leftover seeds for subsequent years, click here.

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