How to Read a Seed Packet or Plant Tag to Help Your Garden Grow
Beyond the pretty photo, do you know what all that plant information really means? Learn how to read a seed packet or plant tag to understand what you're buying—and if it will grow in your garden.
All that information on seed packets and on the tags stuck in the soil of new vegetable plants can be so useful—or overwhelming, if you don’t know what it all means. When you understand how to read a seed packet and plant tags, your chances of a robust vegetable garden are so much better!
Here’s the information that will typically be included to describe seeds and plants, and what the sections and labels mean for your gardening.
Those gleaming photos of colorful plants, fruits and vegetables are what catch your eye in the first place, and tempt you to buy seeds or plants! The photo on a plant tag or seed packet is definitely important, because it shows you what your veggies will look like and gives a sense of their size. Remember that what they’re showing you is the mature plant, with fully developed vegetables that require time and proper growing conditions to look that way.
This will be prominent on the package or tag. It will say what the basic type of plant is, like “tomato” or “pea”, and then list the varietal name, such as “Brandywine Pink” or “Sugar Snap”.
The botanical name for the plant is included, too. (Although plant tags sometimes omit it.) It consists of two Latin words for the genus and species of plant, and is usually printed in italics or inside parentheses. It may also have the variety name. For example, jalapeños are part of the capiscum annuum family, but since there are many peppers in this family, the name might specify capiscum annuum ‘Jalapeno’. While it may seem confusing, the botanical name is actually helpful to gardeners to confirm the veggie type: while common plant names may differ from one region to the next, botanical names are the same everywhere.
Find this typically on the back of seed packets, and on the front or back of plant tags depending on their size. The description is where sellers really intrigue you with the possibilities of the vegetable you’re considering! Here you’ll learn about the unique flavor, color and culinary uses for the veggie. For heirloom seeds, there may also be some history about where the seeds came from.
The description usually includes some information about how the plant grows, too: like bush type, vining, determinate or indeterminate. It will note the size of the mature vegetables, and whether the plant will grow well in a container garden.
These labels give you information on how seeds and plants are developed and grown. They help gardeners make informed choices about plants based on companies’ environmental and social practices, as well as understand unique characteristics of your plants. Here are some accreditations and designations you might see:
Organic: Seeds and plants labeled as “certified organic” have to meet the same strict requirements set by the USDA for organic food: grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Look for the USDA Organic label.
Hybrid: Hybrid plants and seeds are created by cross-pollinating two plants together in order to breed their favorable traits into one plant, like disease resistance or a higher yield. The tag or packet will have “hybrid” clearly on the front as a label or as part of the plant name.
Non-GMO: GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”, meaning the DNA of a plant has been altered in a lab to create a new variety—one that wouldn’t have occurred naturally. The NON-GMO Project and label was created to allow consumers the choice of foods and plants that are not genetically modified. Look for the NON-GMO label or wording on the tag or packet.
Open-Pollinated: Plants are allowed to pollinate through natural methods, with help from wind, insects, animals and people. This natural process creates diversity in plants and greater adaptability to different growing conditions.
Heirloom: These seeds and plants are open-pollinated, but they’ve also been carefully preserved and passed down through generations to ensure that unique varieties survive. Companies like Seed Savers track and document the history of heirloom seeds and plants.
Fair Trade: Seeds, plants and products that are “fair trade certified” come from farmers who have been paid fair wages for their crops, who adhere to sound environmental practices and provide safe conditions for workers.
The hardiness zone map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture divides the country into different growing zone climates. Tags and seed packets may list the hardiness zones for the plant, which tells gardeners the areas where the plants can grow.
Because many vegetables are treated like annuals (grown for one season, and then planted anew the next season), not all packets and tags include the growing zone. It’s still worth knowing yours though, because some veggies do better in warmer growing conditions and will need protection from frost or cold snaps. Also, there are vegetables that can be grown as perennials in certain zones. Find your zone on the USDA plant hardiness map.
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When to Plant
This section is listed after the plant description and may be labeled as “directions,” “how to grow” or “plant tips”. Here there are instructions for when to plant, based on how much cold the plant can tolerate.
Some vegetables with long growing seasons, like peppers and pumpkins, will advise to start seeds indoors and will tell you how many weeks before planting time you should do this. It lets you get a head start on that growing time while it’s still cold out. If the instructions say to “direct sow” or “sow outside,” this means to plant seeds directly in the garden. Check for notes like “plant after last frost date” or “wait until soil is warm” to know when you can sow them.
Editor’s tip: If trying to schedule your various planting dates is getting overwhelming, look for planting calendars from seed sellers, agricultural extension services and sites like Old Farmer’s Almanac. They’ll give you the correct planting dates for different vegetables in your area.
Also listed as “seed depth”, this is usually found in a band of growing information on the back or along the side of seed packets. Or, it may be noted in the When To Plant section. It will tell you how deep (in inches or centimeters) to plant the seeds, whether starting them inside or directly sowing outside. This is important, because seeds may not germinate if planted too deeply.
This is another specification that you’ll find in the growing information band on seed packets, or as part of “How to Grow” information on plant tags. Because vegetable plants need sufficient space to grow and stay healthy, seed spacing tells you how far apart to plant seeds. Plant tags will have spacing guidelines for the young plants, too. There may also be information on the space needed between rows of plants in your garden.
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Some seeds in your packet will likely be duds. To ensure you have some that do germinate, seed packets will instruct you to plant several seeds close together. Once they sprout, you then thin, (or remove) some of the seedlings to make room for others to grow. For example, cucumber growing instructions might say to plant six seeds per hill. Once the seedlings emerge, they should be “thinned” to three plants per hill. Thinning instructions will be in the band of growing information or listed with the instructions.
Look for this in the instructions or in the band of growing information on the tag or packet, listed under “light,” “exposure” or “sun.” This is really important, as is to know how many hours of light your garden area gets each day. If the light requirement says “full sun”, the plant needs 6-8 hours of direct sun every day. Part sun or part shade means 3-6 hours of sunlight, and plants in this bracket often need the shade in the afternoon when the heat is more intense.
It’s just what it sounds like: how tall your mature plants will be. It’s helpful to know when arranging plants in your garden, and because taller plants may need supports as the vegetables grow and weigh down the stems. Look for the plant height in the growing information band or as part of the Plant Description.
Days to Germination
Also written as “days to emerge”, this is how many days it will take after planting seeds for seedlings to sprout. It’s often listed as a range, since water, light, and temperature will all affect how long germination ultimately takes.
Days to Maturity
After all that work, what you really want are those veggies to be ready to pick: this section tells you how long that will take. It may be written as “days to harvest” or “fruits ripen”. This is how many days it will take after planting for vegetables to grow to a mature, pickable size. This information will be on the back of seed packets and tags. Many also list it on the front, since it’s so important for gardeners to know when choosing between varieties. If you’re buying plants, you may get a bit of a head start on this time frame since some of the growing has been done for you—but this depends on how big the plant is.
Days to maturity will determine if seeds can be directly sown or if you have to start them inside, which is often the case in areas with shorter growing seasons. Peppers usually have two sets of numbers: one to harvest green peppers and one to harvest fully ripened, colorful peppers.
Sell By Date
The top or bottom flaps of seed packets have the dates the seeds are packed and the date to sell them by. It’s a good practice to check this to make sure you’re using fresh seeds, so you’ll have the best chances of getting them to sprout.
Finally, your plant tags may include extra, helpful growing tips. The information can include advice about starting seeds indoors, weeding, amending soil with compost, garden insects or diseases to watch for, and how often you should harvest. Sometimes there will be a QR code that you can scan to get even more help online. These are tips specific to your plants, so they’re worth using.
There is a lot of information packed onto those small tags and envelopes, all to help you make the best plant choices. Now that you have the low down on what all the sections and terms mean, there’s nothing standing between you and one amazing vegetable garden!