The information on the back of a vegetable seed packet is as valuable as the name and picture on the front. The picture is to sell you the product. The data on the back will help you be a more successful gardener. The following are the categories of information you can find.
Your climate zone has a finite number of days in a growing season. The growing season begins after the last frost in the spring and lasts until the first frost in the fall. Some vegetables can be planted after the ground has thawed but is still quite cold, while other vegetables need to be planted in warm soil. Instructions may say to plant “after danger of frost is past” or “start seeds indoors six weeks before the expected last frost date.”
Most vegetables belong in full sun. Every now and then, you will see instructions that state the vegetable will grow in part shade. Rocket Arugula is one example. Full sun means at least six hours of direct sun every day. If you have a choice, morning sun is less stressful on plants than afternoon sun.
Look for phrases such as well-drained soil, fertile soil, and well-worked soil. Vegetables get the nutrients they need to grow from the soil. You can augment the rain water with a soaker hose, and you can add compost, humus, and amendments to boost the available nutrients. Great soil texture is called friable. The experts at Oregon State University say that friable soil is free of compacted lumps.
To get friable soil, add organic material. Whether you have clay, sand, silt, or rich humus, organic material is the best additive. Organic material includes sawdust, bark mulch, peat moss, well rotted manure, dried grass or wheat straw, and compost. Compost is organic material that has decayed and reduced to a black substance that looks like soil. All amendments should be well mixed with the existing soil to a depth of 12 to 24 inches. Friable soil is light, nutrient rich, and drains easily.
The instructions on the seed packet will say “sow 6 inches apart,” or “plant space 3-4 inches,” or “sow 4 to 6 seeds 3 inches apart in hills 36 inches apart.” The plants need room to grow without crowding. The roots as well as the stems and flowers need adequate space to get to the water and sunlight they need. Crowding plants will not usually mean more vegetables.
Seeds need to planted at their optimal depth. They need the right amount of dirt to hold them in place and provide ready access to nutrients. If seeds are planted too deep, they may never germinate. The seed packet will indicate the correct depth. Some very small seeds should be dropped carefully on the soil surface and then covered with 1/2 inch more or less of fine, loose soil. You may need to lightly firm the soil on top of the seeds to assure good contact with the soil. Look for planting depths of 1/4 inch up to 1 inch.
Time to Sprout
Given adequate water and sunlight, seeds will germinate and sprout at a predictable time interval. The seed packet may indicate a range of time for sprouting. Radishes emerge in 4 to 6 days. Kohlrabi sprouts in 6 to 12 days. Cucumber seedlings appear in 7 to 14 days. The Time to Sprout gives new gardeners a timetable to decide if their efforts have paid off. The local weather conditions have an impact on germination. A cold rain may slow down warm weather crops. Excessive rain can also impact growth.
How and When to Thin
Since there are no 100% germination rates, the instructions on the seed packet are written to assure more plants will sprout than will fit in the space allowed. Thinning means cutting off or pulling out the weaker plants to provide more space for the stronger plants. The instructions may refer to “real leaves.” The first leaves to open are not actually leaves. The second pair of leaves are the first true leaves. Be careful when thinning not to disturb the young plants that will remain.
When to Harvest
The instructions on the seed packet will indicate days to maturity. This is an estimate based on averages for the type of plant. Radishes left in the ground longer than 29 days are still great eating and may be larger. Zucchini left on the vine beyond 10 inches in length may not be as good tasting as smaller sizes. Salad greens are sweeter when they are very young. The Days to Mature is an estimate.
The picture on the front of the seed packet is another good indication of when the vegetables are ready to pick. Vegetables that grow under the ground, such as carrots, potatoes, and garlic, can be “checked on” by carefully moving the soil away from the roots for a visual inspection.
Fresh seeds have better germination rates that older seeds. For the best growing results, use seeds with a Packed For date of the current year. Older seeds may still grow, but you may get fewer plants.
There are no guarantees in gardening. What works one year may not work the next year. The information on the seed packet is there to help improve the odds.