In this first part of my Basic Seed Starting for Beginners series, I walk you through how to tell the difference between GMO seeds, non-GMO seeds, hybrid seeds, heirloom seeds, and organic seeds. You’ll learn what seeds will work for your gardening zone, how to tell what your gardening zone is, what to look for on your seed packets, and where you can look for seeds to start at home.
“From a small seed, a mighty trunk may grow”–Aeschylus
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Welcome to my Basic Seed Starting for Beginners Guide! In this 3 part series I will be walking you through the basics of choosing your seeds, gathering your seed starting supplies, preparing your seed starting setup, starting and caring for your seedlings, and basic seed starting troubleshooting. But in this part, let’s learn about seeds so that you can make the best decisions for you when purchasing your seeds.
Step 1: Learn your Gardening Zone
Ask any veteran gardener and they will tell you that you cannot grow bananas in the Northern U.S. Why? Because they are not hardy to cold climates. Therefore, in order to have a successful garden and pick the correct seeds for your area you must first consult a “hardiness map” to find your hardiness zone. The hardiness map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture divides the map into 10 zones by annual minimum low temperatures. You can find your hardiness zone by entering your zip code at the top left corner of the map here.
The back of each seed packet should list what hardiness zone the plant can grow in or tell you whether it is frost hardy or not. A quick google search can tell you if the seed packet doesn’t have that information. Pick seeds that match your hardiness zone. If you pick a seed that is outside of your hardiness zone, chances are it will not thrive and will likely die.
Be advised, these zones are general guidelines and do not take microclimates or soil type into account. So you can try to play with some plants outside of your zone or soil type, but I would not, for example, bet on a tropical garden if you live in Montana.
Step 2: Know the different types of seeds for basic seed starting
Learning the meanings of descriptions on seed labels can help you narrow down what you want growing in your garden.
Annuals and perrenials
First, it can be helpful to know the difference between annuals and perennials. Annuals are plants that must be seed started annually because they die off during the winter months. Often, annuals can reseed in your garden but sometimes it is better to plan on starting these from seed yearly. Perennials, however, can survive for years. Knowing this can help you decide how many seeds you will likely need to plan to purchase for your needs for certain plants.
Rosemary, for example, is a perennial in southern zones, but in my zone it is an annual since it can thrive during the summer months but cannot withstand our winter temperatures.
For a seed to be considered organic it has to be grown using organic methods (without chemical pesticides or fungicides etc.) and organic seeds will be labeled as such if they are certified organic.
Heirloom seeds are seeds that are open pollinated (pollinated naturally), non-GMO, non-hybrid, and reproduce after themselves for many many generations. Some consider a seed variety an heirloom variety if it has been around for over fifty years. Heirloom seeds can also be organic if organically grown. There are many, many varieties of heirloom seeds and sometimes you can find rare ones that are fun to try out. I prefer to use mostly heirloom seeds as opposed to hybrid because of the ability to seed-save.
GMO seeds are seeds that have genetically modified DNA using biotechnology to produce a specific characteristic. These are bred in a lab not by pollination. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. GMO’s are highly controversial. There are concerns that GMO’s may harm human health by way of nutrient modifications, allergy triggers, and gene transfers among others. Many of these concerns are unanswered and as a result many people choose to limit their exposure to GMO foods and in this case, the seeds. You will not usually find GMO seeds at your average seed company as most GMO’s are produced for industrial farmers.
These are any seeds that reproduce by pollination and are not genetically modified. Some seed packets or seed companies will state specifically that their seed is non-GMO.
Hybrid seeds are often confused with GMO seeds but they are not the same thing. These are seeds that have been cross bred by pollination. Two different varieties of a plant can be cross-pollinated to produce seed with desired traits from both varieties. These traits can have to do with disease resistance, uniformity, flavor, and more.
Hybrid seeds are generally only good for one generation. Meaning if you save the seeds then they likely will not produce the same kind of offspring with the same traits if it produces at all.
Step 3: Choose your seed varieties
Choose seeds that transplant well
Transplanting is when you take a seedling that has been started in one place and replant it in another area. After starting seeds indoors you will need to transplant them outdoors. Some plants do NOT do well when being transplanted because their roots are touchy and they don’t like them messed with. It is best if these seeds are direct sown. Direct sown seeds are seeds that are planted directly outside in your garden. Seeds that are not good transplanting candidates are usually root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and beets or some vining plants like pumpkins and squashes.
Other plants may not need to be transplanted because they do so well germinating outdoors in colder temperatures in early spring and can save you energy and seed starting space if direct sown. These are things like kale and lettuce. Other great candidates for direct sowing are peas which can be sown as soon as the ground is thawed in spring and beans which must be sown after your last frost date, but generally grow very well directly in the garden. Both of these plants must be trellised (have something to climb up).
All of that being said, great seeds starting candidates are:
- Onions (must be started very early)
These are by no means comprehensive lists but it should be enough to get you started.
Know your soil type
Learning your soil type can seem complicated and involve testing and soil amendments. However, for seed starting purposes, you only need to know if the soil in your area is more alkaline or acidic. You can find this out by getting a soil test done but often a quick call to your local extension office will usually get you a general answer for your area.
Blueberries, for example, are hardy to my zone 6 in Utah. But anyone will tell you that you cannot grow them here because they love acidic soil and ours is much too alkaline. If I were to start some blueberries and nurse them to life and plant them outdoors, they would eventually die or severely struggle and my time would have been wasted.
check with the locals
Ask around to local gardeners about the best varieties to grow in your area. Many extension offices have lists of recommended varieties for your specific area. These can save you a lot of trial and error time.
Read the seed packet information
The back of seed packets, seed descriptions on seed company websites, and seed catalogues can often give you great information. They can give tips on things like ideal location, climate, and, most importantly, days to maturity. This is great information for beginners for basic seed starting.
Days to Maturity
This can be extremely important to those in northern gardening zones. The days to maturity listed on a seed packet are how many days it will take from planting, until the plant is fully mature and, hopefully, bearing fruit. This is important when you have a shorter growing season. You cannot expect mature fruit from a tomato plant that takes 180 days to mature if you only have a 90 day growing season since tomatoes like warm weather and will die with a freeze. You can figure out your growing season by figuring out your first and last frost date here. Your growing season length will be the number of days between these two dates.
Step 4: Buy seeds from a reputable company
When it comes to seeds, you don’t want to purchase from just anywhere. You may get seeds that are very old, or give you a low germination rate. The germination rate is how many seeds sprout or germinate versus the amount of seeds you planted. A good germination rate can be crucial to success when seed starting. I do not recommend ordering seeds from amazon as you cannot always be sure where they are coming from.
For several years I have gotten vegetable seeds from a local seed company called True Leaf Market. They are based out of Salt Lake City, Utah and, in my experience, have high quality seeds that have given me a high germination rate. Even more so than some of the larger more popular seed companies. They have a large variety to choose from and I like that you can filter your options easily on their website. They offer non-GMO seeds as well as many other gardening supplies. You can check them out here.
Whew! That was a lot of information. Please comment below and let me know if any of this was helpful to you and stay tuned for the next 2 parts in our Basic Seed Starting for Beginners series!