Deciphering a Seed Packet or Seed Catalog

Look at a seed packet or seed catalog and you're likely to see unfamiliar codes and abbreviations. Here is what they mean.
By John Vivian
April/May 1994
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Once you know the lingo, a seed packet or seed catalog conveys a wealth of information about hybrid types, growing season, and disease resistence.

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Like all technical specialties, seed growers/sellers have a shorthand to convey the most information in the least space. Aside from a paragraph or two describing the variety and its growth habits, the printing on a seed packet or in a seed catalog  comprises cryptic codes and terms that may leave you in the dark. The following is a seed-packet lingo legend:

Stock Numbers come out of the order-taker's computer and are crucial; get one wrong on a mail-order form and you can end up with a packet of Heliocanthus when you expected Head Lettuce.

Varietal Names, especially the older ones, can vary among suppliers and their section of the country. The low evergreen ground cover with small blue flowers called periwinkle in one locale is Vinca Minor or "vinca" in another, Ground-Myrtle or "myrtle" elsewhere.

With new varieties, it's best to buy from the firm that tells you on the packet or in catalog copy that they developed or import the seeds. They will use the correct name and reserve the best seed if there is a quality choice.

Hybrid plants (Hb) (F1) or (F2) are bred from two or more different parent stocks, with traits that improve on the best characteristics of both strains, but they are unable to pass them on—like a mule can't heir its kick.

Don't save hybrid seed and plant it; you'll get an atavistic throwback with the worst characteristics of some half-wild great-grandparent. Open-pollinated (OP) seed will grow true to type. Reserve seed Reselected variety that does best in your soil and climate. Genetics of sweet corn is often indicated by an (S), which means it is a glucose-containing, eating variety rather than field corn. (Se) is an extra-sweet hybrid; (Sh2) is a super-sweet hybrid that must self-pollinate ...which means they must be planted upwind of and some distance from other corn varieties to develop the sugary trait.

Maturity means days to harvest, not to fully ripe, seed stage maturity—except for tomatoes and peppers that you leave on the vine long enough to turn red. It indicates time to harvest from average day of planting seed (or transplanting indoor-started seedlings) into what the seedsman sees to be a typical home garden. Some seed is simply rated as early/midseason/late. But look hard at the maturities; often "Early" varies only by a day or two from "midseason" or "main-crop" The figures are approximations at best, so use them for comparison only; an 82-day tomato has already spent weeks in the indoor flat, and it may never ripen at all if you live in a short season area and plant it out late.

Disease & Pest Resistance shows what degree of tolerance to common pests or diseases have been bred into the seed. Verticillium and Fusariurn live in most garden soil; so do nematodes of many kinds. Yellows and nematodes are worst in southern soil. Bred-in resistance is the best preventative.

AAS means a past All-America Selection.
VFN is commonly run together; it means a resistance to:
 - Verticillium wilt of tomatoes and eggplant.
 - Fusarium fungus of tomatoes and others.
 - Nematodes, microscopic soil worms that bother especially tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.
 - T or TMV indicates resistance to tobacco mosaic virus that affects tomatoes and peppers.
 - Y means a resistance to Yellows, a common fungus affecting members of the cabbage family.
 - A indicates resistance to anthracnose in beans and cucumbers or altenaria stem fungus in tomatoes.
 - BMV means resistance to bean mosaic virus.
 - CMV means resistance to cucumber mosaic virus.
 - MTO is seed free of lettuce mosaic virus.

Proprietary Codes in a variety of configurations indicate a variety's special suitability for new gardeners, for especially hot and dry or cool and wet climates, or for other growing situations.

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