Growing your own herbs and veggies is a great way to eat smart by controlling what goes on your dinner table.
Since you get to decide what kind of soil mix, fertilizer, compost, pest control, etc. to use, you know exactly what you’re eating.
And seed selection is step numero uno in this green thumb journey.
But with so many options available at garden centers, nurseries, seed libraries and online stores—figuring out which seeds are going to do well in your garden can be a bit daunting. Especially, if you’re a beginner.
Below, four home gardening pros give the lowdown on the do’s and don’ts of seed shopping for a bountiful harvest:
#1 Check your plant hardiness zone. “Before buying seeds for your vegetable garden, you need to know what will thrive or die,” says certified master gardener, Allison Davis. Simply, look up the USDA plant hardiness zone map online and it will tell you what zone you are in. Next, check where you are going to be planting these seeds. Ask yourself, is it shady? Is it sunny? If so, for how long? Will the plants get direct sunlight all day or just partially? For more shady areas you’re going to want to go with carrots, beets, lettuce, etc. On the other hand, for more sunny areas, you can go with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc., suggests Davis.
#2 Consider your level of gardening experience. “Everyone starts somewhere, but you’ll want to be sure you’re purchasing the right seeds based on your skill set, as some seeds require more knowledge of gardening to grow,” says Rebecca Sears, chief gardening expert at Ferry-Morse. “A lot of people dive right into peppers and tomatoes—which can be a little finicky and can take ages to get a crop,” says Cassie Johnston, an Indiana-based certified master gardener. Both Sears and Johnston recommend starting with crops that are easy to grow and fast-yielding to help grow confidence in your gardening abilities—like sunflower, basil, leaf lettuces, radishes, green onions and zucchini.
#3 Don’t overlook seed age. “Seed age can really matter. Sure, some seeds will last fine for years, but others—like parsnips and carrots—will need to be purchased every year or you’ll have incredibly low germination rates,” says Johnston. So make sure to check the seed life of the variety you’re growing plus the seed age on the packet you buy, she adds.
#4 Talk to local experts. “Different varieties work in different microclimates. Sometimes varieties that grow well at my house don’t grow well at my neighbor’s house half a mile down the road,” says Johnston. This is why, when picking out seed varieties, talk to an expert at your local Master Gardeners’ club, a neighbor with a robust garden or even the old-timers at the local hardware store first, she suggests. “They have a wealth of knowledge about varieties that grow well in your area that big seed companies just won’t have,” she adds.
#5 Don’t rush to order. “I recommend taking your time when buying seeds,” says Megan Cain, a Wisconsin-based urban gardener and author of Smart Start Garden Planner: Your Step-by-Step Guide to a Successful Season. “I go through my existing seeds first and take inventory. Then I read the seed catalogs and circle anything that looks interesting—working my way through each vegetable, really thinking about what I need or want,” shares the garden educator.
#6 Read the label carefully. “Most seed packets will include the name and an image of the plant seed you’re purchasing, as well as the plant type so you know if what you’re purchasing is a vegetable or an herb, etc.,” says Sears. On the back of a seed packet, you’ll usually find planting instructions and suggestions along with key planting and growing information, including sun requirements, plant height and days to germination. “Most importantly, your seed packet should include Days to Maturity/Harvest to help you determine the best time to start your seeds for your specific zone,” says Sears. “If you’re not sure when is the right time to plant your seeds based on your growing zone, you can refer to USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to ensure optimal success,” she recommends.
#7 Don’t fall for marketing jargon. “There’s a lot of marketing on those seed packets, so my biggest recommendation for beginners is to try to filter all that out,” says Johnston. “Don’t get too caught up in heirloom this and open-pollinated that. The best seeds for a new gardener are the ones that they can easily access, fit within their budget and produce the food they enjoy,” she adds.
That said, if you do want to dig deeper (pun unintended) into the different kinds of seeds, here are the basics:
- Hybrid: “Hybrid seeds are the result of crossing two diﬀerent parent plants in a controlled environment. They are bred to select for certain desirable characteristics like color, sweetness, disease resistance and uniformity,” says Cain. “Hybrid seeds need to be repurchased every time because, many times, the hybridization doesn’t ‘stick’ to the next generations. So if you wanted to save the seeds from a hybrid tomato plant, you probably wouldn’t get the same results in the next generation of plants,” notes Johnston.
- Open-Pollinated/Heirloom: This seed type is the opposite of hybrid. Instead of a person crossing two plants intentionally in a controlled environment, open-pollinated seeds are a result of natural pollination carried out by insects, birds, wind, etc., Cain explains. “The drawback here is that some of the heirloom or open-pollinated varieties can be more difficult to grow because they haven’t been bred for disease or insect resistance,” says Johnston.
- Organic: “Organic seeds are simply seeds that have been harvested from a plant that’s grown in a certified organic garden or farm,” says Johnston. “If you plan on having an organic garden, you can be sure that these seeds came from a plant that genetically thrived in organic growing conditions,” she adds.
- GMO: “Genetically modified seeds (GMOs) are like hybridization but on steroids. This is where the genetic code of the seed is actually modified in the lab to produce some sort of beneficial result—typically resistance to herbicides or pesticides so the plant can be sprayed heavily without hurting the crop,” Johnston explains. “GMO seeds are common in commercial farms but not as common in home gardens,” adds the home gardening expert.
The biggest seed starting mistakes to avoid
Once you have got the seeds, planting them the right way is critical as the success of starting your seeds will determine the success of your harvest. Here are the six most common mistakes to steer clear of when seed starting:
Mistake #1 Not reading the planting instructions. By not doing so, you may end up planting the seeds at the wrong time or placing them in an environment where they may not grow, says Davis. So take a few minutes to read the planting instructions and growing information carefully for a seamless gardening experience and optimal results.
Mistake #2 Not giving enough water. Unlike a fully established plant with a robust root system that can go a week without water, germinating seeds and seedlings need regular watering. Especially during the germination stage so that the soil doesn’t form an impenetrable crust, explains Johnston. “You don’t want them sopping wet, but they should be pleasantly damp at all times,” she adds.
Mistake #3 Giving too much water. It may be hard to believe because water is essential for growing plants, but there is such a thing as too much of it. “Overwatering your plants can lead to a lack of oxygen, which will drown roots. So you’ll want to make sure you’re using the proper amount of water,” says Sears. “Your seed packet should give you a good indicator of how much water your plant needs,” she adds.
Mistake #4 Not paying attention to airflow. It’s important to have airflow around your seedlings to prepare them for strong weather conditions as well as to keep mold and fungal growth to a minimum. Johnston suggests using a small fan on low oscillating over your seedlings.
Mistake #5 Not providing enough light. “We see these magazine photos of robust seedlings sitting next to a sunny window and think, ‘wow! I can do that!’ but the truth is, unless you have a very sunny and warm windowsill, you’ll probably need supplemental grow lights to start seeds indoors,” says Johnston. Once you get the grow light, make sure it’s placed just an inch above the top of the plants, she advises.
Mistake #6 Not potting up the seedlings. Most seedlings like to be replanted into a bigger pot once or twice before heading out into the garden. “This is especially beneficial for nightshade plants like peppers and tomatoes,” says Johnston.
How to save seeds from your own garden
When stored properly, harvested seeds can often be used for more than one growing season. This will not only give you a jump-start for the next season but also shave a few dollars off your gardening budget.
“Preserving and storing seeds from your own garden is a great practice that can be done by both beginner and advanced gardeners alike,” says Sears.
To preserve seeds from your home-grown fruits and vegetables, start by placing them in water for a few days—swirling the water once or twice daily, suggests Davis. This will make the seeds sink to the bottom and be free of the pulp.
After they have sunk, rinse the seeds with fresh water and let them dry out. Once fully dry, tightly seal them in containers and organize as per your preference, says Davis.
“The moisture content within a seed really impacts the seed’s viability, so keeping the level of moisture relatively stable is key to successful storage,” says Sears. She suggests keeping the seeds in a cool, dark and dry place, like a refrigerator.
It’s also important to know that the seed harvesting method varies for different varieties. “For example, a biennial plant like kale will need to be in your garden for almost two full growing seasons before you can harvest seeds. But you can harvest cilantro seeds within just a few months,” says Johnston.
Similarly, the shelf life of the seeds also differs from variety to variety. For instance, artichoke, turnip and radish seeds can last up to five years when stored properly. Meanwhile, leeks or onion seeds will only be good for a year.
So make sure you look up the information on each variety before diving into seed saving, Johnston advises.
Sears recommends using Ferry-Morse’s Stored Seed Viability Reference List to get a general idea of how long each of your seed varieties will last under the proper storing conditions.