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Sizing up a seed rack can be a little tricky. “It is intimidating” especially for new gardeners, says Ryan Schmitt, staff horticulturist for the seed company Botanical Interests. Part of Schmitt’s job is designing seed racks, called “seed kits” in the business, he says, “and I’m picky about it.”
Most racks are organized into categories: vegetables, flowers, and herbs are grouped separately, and they’re each in alphabetical order. Large packages, holding collections of several kinds of seeds or special seed mixes, are often at the top of the rack. Many racks are two-sided, or even four-sided. A good seed kit holds between 50 and several hundred different packages of seeds, and you’ll miss a lot of the offerings if you only see one side of the rack.
Reading a seed rack is a bit like scrolling through a list of choices that pop up when you do a Google search. The first thing you see on a seed rack is just the beginning: there may be as many as a dozen different colors and cultivars of the zinnias or tomatoes you’re looking for. Don’t stop at the end of a row on the rack: check the rows above and below, too. “You might miss the gems,” Schmitt says, if you don’t peruse the rack thoroughly.
The front of a seed package is like a poster: a big, colorful picture of the flower or vegetable strives to catch your eye. But a lot of information is crowded onto a seed packet. You’ll find the name of the specific variety (such as ‘Supersweet’ or ‘San Marzano’ tomatoes), and often the number of days to harvest, or, for a flower, whether it is an annual or perennial or thrives in sun or shade.
The description on a vegetable seed pack should tell you what size and shape the vegetable will be and something about its taste. It might say how many seeds are in the package, or how much room the plants will need to grow. A description such as “this packet plants three 5-foot rows” will help you plan your garden in your mind while you’re standing there in the store. Flower seed packages may even include a garden design suggestion, information about the size of flowers or their fragrance. Especially if you’re new to gardening, it helps if the seed package tells you how deep to plant the seeds, how far apart they should be in a row, and how long it takes for the seeds to germinate.
Buying more seeds than you can possibly grow is normal, Schmitt says. “It’s not a bad thing. Being an ambitious gardener is not a fault,” he says. “And sharing never hurt. It’s a good way to make a friend.”