Seed catalogs are slipping into mailboxes now, and seed orders will soon be heading out in return. The catalogs are certainly tempting as we envision those picture-perfect plants in our own gardens. I know I make long lists of what I want, which is basically everything … until I add up the price; then I have to seriously pare down my wish list.

Seeds offer an opportunity to grow old favorites and try new varieties at a much lower cost than purchased plants. Also, the selection of seeds available is typically much greater, so that you can find unusual varieties not sold or grown by local nurseries or garden centers. There is time and effort required, however, in starting seeds successfully; but many are very easy even for a novice gardener.

When we order seeds from a catalog, or when we purchase packets of seed in the spring, we are drawn to the colorful flower or vegetable pictured. It’s important to also pay attention to the information and instructions provided, which can spell the difference between success and failure.

Here’s some of the information you’ll find on the packet:

• Description and uses: Usually includes common and scientific name, plant height at maturity, days to harvest or bloom, growth habit, life cycle (annual or perennial), and suggested uses for the plant.

• Weight: Either a weight or number of seeds is noted; this is useful in determining how much seed or how many packets you’ll need for the space you’re planning to plant.

• Date: The year for which the seeds were packaged, e.g., “Packed for 2010” and a sell-by date, as well as the country of origin, is included. It’s important to know this date, because as seeds age, their germination rate declines. If you sow seeds from several years ago, you may get few if any seeds sprouting as their viability decreases.

• Planting directions: When to plant, planting depth, spacing, light exposure requirements, days to emergence, whether the seeds should be started indoors or can be planted directly outdoors; all of this information will help you to grow a successful crop.

With all of this information on the outside, we may give little thought to what’s inside the paper packet – the seed itself.

A seed is an extraordinary thing. Seeds come in myriad shapes and sizes, and plants have evolved ingenious methods to disperse seed. A seed is basically a container that is generally compact, easily stored and able to withstand conditions that would kill its parent plant. No matter how small the seed, contained within that seed coat is a dormant plant, complete with root, stem and leaves, along with a food source – either seed leaves or endosperm – to provide nourishment to the embryo seedling. A seed survives cold, drought, heat, sometimes for hundreds of years, just waiting for the right conditions of moisture and light to germinate.

Here are a few interesting facts about seeds:

• Seeds provide more food for human beings than any other plant or animal – think of rice, corn, wheat, barley, oats, peanuts and nuts.

• The second largest of all known seeds is the familiar coconut. It can float, sometimes thousands of miles, on the ocean because of its hollow cavity and fibrous coat.

• Some seeds, such as those of orchids and begonias, are as fine as dust. The seed capsule of one orchid flower contained more than three million seeds.

• Viable seeds of the sacred Indian lotus have been found that were 150 years old, and even some that were more than 1,000 years old.

• Many common weed seeds, such as lambsquarters, ragweed and foxtail, can survive up to 40 years buried in the soil.

• The Norwegian government has built a seed vault at Svalbard, 390 feet inside a sandstone mountain on the island of Spitsbergen, to collect and preserve the genetic diversity of over 4.5 million samples of different seeds.

Seeds truly do represent new opportunities in the garden with the coming of spring.

Annette MaCoy is the consumer horticulture extension educator and master gardener coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. If you have garden questions, contact Annette at 240-6500 or by e-mail at ahm11@psu.edu.

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