This Nov. 17, 2017 photo shows seed packets at a hardware store in Freeland, Wash. The packs are great little reference tools. While the front of the packets show how the seeds will look when they mature, the rear describes everything needed to grow them from spacing and soil depth to light conditions and moisture requirements. (Dean Fosdick via AP)

Pocket-size seed packets speak volumes

  • Dec. 26, 2017 2:24 p.m.

A seed packet may be small, but it speaks volumes.

While seed catalogues promote thousands of types of plants, seed packets tell gardeners how to grow one. All the information is printed on the back of a paper pouch slightly larger than the size of your wallet, and at prices that won’t empty it.

Although the cost of seeds has risen over the past few years, they’re still an economical way to garden, said Elsa Sanchez, a commercial vegetable crops specialist at Penn State University Extension.

“The other option would be to buy transplants, which is generally more expensive,” Sanchez said. “You also find a lot more options for types and cultivars when you start from seed.”

Seed packages have been a gardening staple in the United States for well over a century, although their look is frequently changed.

W. Atlee Burpee & Co., for example, has begun shipping re-designed packets for the 2018 growing season.

“We made the picture (of the plant) virtually the entire front of the packet, so there’s a very strong shout-out of what it is,” said Burpee chairman and chief executive officer George Ball. “We have just a few things on the front — the name, price and weight, such as we need to have.

“But turn it over and you’ll see that we’ve amped up the type of gardening information you’re going to get — the what, the how, the where and the when. The most important is the when,” Ball said. “We use USDA (hardiness) zones and maps for that.”

Company founder Washington Atlee Burpee used to call seed packets his “silent salesmen,” Ball said.

“It’s important that the seed packets be seen from 15 feet for in-store sales rather than 15 inches for a catalogue. So we go for a more varnished look to make a good first impression,” he said.

The kind of information to expect from these miniature reference guides:

— Days to seed germination and maturity. Expect those to vary somewhat, though, based on sun exposure, soil temperature, fertility and moisture.

— Seed count and packing date. “Seed longevity is dependent on the type of seed and also storage conditions,” Sanchez said, recommending that any leftovers be kept cool and dry until another planting season rolls around. “Over time, viability and germination rates will decline.”

— Plant profile and size: whether it’s a hybrid, open pollinated or an heirloom, an annual, biennial or perennial.

— Planting instructions, including seed spacing and soil depth, light conditions and moisture requirements.

Then there’s the bonus information available through “QR” or quick-response coding, those usually square, artistic designs appearing more frequently on the flip side of seed packets. Download a free QR code reader app into your smart phone or tablet so you can read links and find information online.

“You can use smart phones to scan QR readers for a great many plant-particular details — information that just wouldn’t fit on the back of seed packets,” Sanchez said.

“It is a good idea to hang onto the seed packages after sowing as references for future care and harvesting,” she added.

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