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Deciphering Seed Catalog Lingo

Nothing can put pep in a gardener’s step like receiving seed catalogs after the holidays are over and cabin fever has set in. The vibrant and colorful pictures are enticing and can make you want to plant everything you come across; however, when thumbing through your catalog, there are some things you need to keep in mind. West Virginia University Extension Educators Jody Carpenter, Natasha Harris, and Jessica Streets offer the follow code to help decipher the terms in our seed catalogs.

As you flip through the catalog, try to locate key symbols and wording that will be used throughout. You may find different abbreviations for each variety of seed. The meanings of these abbreviations are found near the front of the catalog. For example, “PM” might mean that it is resistant to powdery mildew. Keep in mind that key symbols may vary in different catalogs.

From there, move on to the organized sections. You will find headings like vegetables, fruit, flowers, herbs, live plants, bulbs and more. Familiarizing yourself with symbols, terms, abbreviations and headings will assist you in finding the right information to grow a successful garden

Common Terms and Abbreviations

  • Days to maturity: The number of days to harvest that is expected after planting transplants.
  • Direct sow: Seeds may be started directly in the ground; for many plants, this is done after all threat of frost is past.
  • Indoor sow: Seeds need to be started indoors under lights or in a greenhouse. Once ready, transplants can be planted outdoors once the threat of frost has passed.
  • Open pollinated (OP) : These plants are pollinated by another plant, as opposed to pollinating itself. These are varieties that will come from true seed, look for this symbol if you want to save seeds to use in future plantings.
  • Hybrid: Seeds from a cross of two or more known varieties. Seed-saving from these varieties will result in plants not identical to the parent plants, some variance is expecting in vigor.
  • Disease resistant: This is the degree of disease resistance exhibited by the plant. Disease resistance is often expressed with abbreviations, for example “V” for Verticillium Wilt. The abbreviations should be explained within the catalog. If you have had disease problems in the past, consider selecting disease resistant varieties; however, resistance could be compromised under high disease pressure.
  • Heirloom: Typically open pollinated, seeds from these plants have been passed down through many years. They tend to have a unique flavor, taste and color. These plants have poor disease resistance when compared to hybrids, and yield is unpredictable.
  • Treated: The seeds are coated with fungicides or insecticides to protect them from disease and pests during their germination and seedling growth. It is common for companies to add color to these seeds to be able to differentiate them from untreated seeds.
  • Determinate plants: This term refers to the growth habit of a tomato plant. Plants will grow to a fixed, determined size, ceasing growth after flowering. They will mature all their fruits in a short period of time (usually about two weeks or so). These are most ideal for small spaces and container gardening.
  • Indeterminate plants: Plants continue to grow and set fruit throughout the growing season until killed by frost. These plants are vining and will need a trellis system.
  • Number of seeds: The amount of seeds a packet will contain. Many will indicate how long of a row in feet that a packet can plant.
  • Early, mid-season, late season: These terms can be used in place of “maturity.” It refers to when fruit will be yielded in relation to the growing season.
  • Vernalization: The process of exposing the plant to cold temperatures for a specific length of time to induce flowering.

USDA Hardiness Zones

This is one of the most important aspects you need to consider when selecting your seeds. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at their location. For Northeast Indiana, we are located in the 5b zone.

Once you have identified which zone you are in and the map associated with the catalog you’re using, you will be able to make a list of plants that are hardy for your area and can successfully grow.

Who doesn’t enjoy happy mail? Order your seed catalogs today and start planning for your garden!

The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service is an Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity institution.

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