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Seed-Buying Tips from a Professional Seedsman

The Seed Industry’s Annual Cycle

Like the crops you grow at home, most commercially available seeds are planted in the spring, grow during the summer, and are harvested and cleaned in the fall. After cleaning and processing, the seeds are tested for germination and purity to insure they meet certain quality standards. At this point they enter the distribution network, being sold to the seed companies whose names you know so well – the companies from which you buy your seeds.

This schedule is not hard and fast, and there can be delays in the processing and cleaning that lapse into the new year which delay the entry of particular seed varieties into the marketplace. Almost everyone who has ordered seeds in the winter has encountered back-ordered items at one time or another. This isn’t because your seed purveyor is careless or negligent. It usually means that the company that produces those seeds – where they originate - simply hasn’t released them yet. Be patient when this occurs. By and large everyone in the seed business is hard working and sincere but inevitably there can be delays and lapses in production.

The Federal Seed Law

The other critical factor that affects the quality of the seeds you buy is the Federal Seed Law. This law regulates commerce in the sale of seeds, and is of particular importance because it requires that vegetable seeds meet certain germination standards. A key provision of these germination standards is the requirement that seeds must be tested every 15 months to insure that the seeds continue to meet minimum germination requirements. If they do not, they cannot legally be sold.

Here is a summary of the minimum germination requirements for our most common vegetable varieties:

• Artichoke: 60
• Asparagus: 70
• Asparagus bean: 75
• Bean, garden:70
• Bean, lima: 70
• Bean, runner: 75
• Beet: 65
• Broadbean: 75
• Broccoli: 75
• Brussels sprouts: 70
• Burdock, great: 60
• Cabbage:75
• Cardoon: 60
• Carrot: 55
• Cauliflower: 75
• Celeriac: 55
• Celery: 55
• Chard, Swiss: 65
• Chicory: 65
• Chinese cabbage: 75
• Chives: 50
• Citron: 65
• Collards: 80
• Corn, sweet: 75
• Corn salad: 70
• Cowpea: 75
• Cress, garden: 75
• Cress, upland: 60
• Cress, water: 40
• Cucumber: 80
• Dandelion:60
• Dill: 60
• Eggplant: 60
• Endive: 70
• Kale: 75
• Kale, Chinese: 75
• Kale, Siberian: 75
• Kohlrabi: 75
• Leek: 60
•Lettuce: 80
• Melon: 75
• Mustard, India: 75
• Mustard, spinach: 75
• Okra: 50
• Onion: 70
• Onion, Welsh: 70
• Pak-choi: 75
• Parsley: 60
• Parsnip: 60
• Pea: 80
• Pepper: 55
• Pumpkin: 75
• Radish: 75
• Rhubarb: 60
• Rutabaga: 75
• Sage: 60
• Salsify: 75
• Savory, summer: 55
• Sorrel: 65
• Soybean: 75
• Spinach: 60
• Spinach, New Zealand: 40
• Squash: 75
• Tomato: 75
• Tomato, husk: 50
• Turnip: 80
• Watermelon: 70

Note that these are minimum requirements and in many instances seed companies send you seeds that exceed these standards. Also, many companies test their seeds more frequently than every 15 months to insure that they are still going to germinate reliably.

Read the Label

Seed companies with a strong pro-consumer orientation provide customers with information that allows them to know that the seeds they buy meet these standards. These companies disclose all you need to know on the label of each seed envelope. The label formats vary but may contain any or all of the following information.

Here’s an image of a sample envelope. Let’s take a look at it line by line.

The top line gives you the common name of the seed variety, in this case, Oxheart Tomato.

The second line gives you the botanical name of the vegetable variety by genus and species. This is useful information especially when a vegetable variety is subdivided into different species, such as kale or winter squash. Sometimes it is useful to know the species name for horticultural reasons.

The third line gives you the lot number. If you have a problem with your seeds, this lot number will help the seed company track the seeds back to their point of origin, the company that grew the seeds. If there are germination issues, the lot number will help you find out if other consumers of this lot have had problems with their seeds. It also helps the producing company identify problem lots.

The fourth line gives you the date of the last germination test so you can know how recently they were tested and how they performed. Do not be alarmed if the germination test is from the year prior to your receipt of the seeds. For example, if you order seeds in January 2015 and they were germ tested in 2014, this is perfectly reasonable. Remember what I said at the beginning of this blog: seeds are harvested and tested the Fall before they go into commercial circulation. Do be concerned if the germination test cited is dated 12 months or older. These seeds probably need to be retested.

The fifth and final line tells you how many seeds should be found inside the packet. Sometimes this is based on seed count. Sometimes it is based on weight. Seed count is becoming an increasingly popular way for seed companies to measure their seeds because it gives the consumer a clear understanding of how many potential plants are in a packet. In contrast, not that many people know how many seeds are in a gram of lettuce, or an ounce of corn. Note: a good seed catalog will tell you how many seeds are in a basic unit of weight for each type of seed.

Some seed companies simply stamp their seeds “Sold for 2015”. While this gives you an assurance that they were packed for the given season, it lacks the clarity of knowing when they received their last germination test and leaves you in limbo if you have leftover seeds that you may wish to save and use in 2016.

Organic Certification

In general, seed companies that sell certified organic seeds are required by law to post notice of that fact on the final line at the back of the seed envelope. This information may also appear elsewhere on the packet, but you should always find it on the bottom on the reverse side.

Testing Seeds from the Previous Season

Next time we’ll take a look at how to easily and inexpensively test seeds from the previous season. See you then!

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