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December 9, 2005
Posted online: January 7, 2006

Understanding seed catalog lingo


Seed Catalogs Seed catalogs and plant tags can tell you a lot, provided you understand the "lingo," says a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"If you understand the 'lingo,' you're on the way to choosing just the right plant and handling it in just the right way," says Greg Stack.

Seed catalogs, he notes, are miniature horticultural reference books. They contain an array of seeds and plants to suit just about everyone's tastes and needs.

"Catalogs are also fun to page through. Not only are the pictures and descriptions colorful, they take the edge off the cold winter days when you dream of adding what you see on the page to that perfect spot in your garden," he explains.

But, when thumbing through seed catalogs, it is important to understand the terms you will encounter, such as annuals, perennials, F1 hybrids, number of days, hills, spacing suggestions, determinate and indeterminate, deadheading, monoecious, gynoecious, gynoecious hybrids, and letters like Vt, EB, Al, F1, or TMV.

"Both flowers and vegetables can be either annuals or perennials," Stack says. "Both can be started from seed, but the annuals complete their life cycle in one growing season and die with cold weather. They need to be replanted next season.

"Perennials will live for three or more years, returning and often getting better with age. They do this from some type of root structure or other underground organ that overwinters and starts to re-grow in the spring."

Many of the newer seed offerings are designated as F1 hybrids. While they may cost a little more, these seeds are the culmination of the plant breeder's work to create something with better garden performance, disease resistance, uniformity, and outstanding flower or fruit production.

"F1 hybrids are the result of specific crosses, which means that seed saved from these plants at the end of the season will result in something totally different if planted next season," Stack notes. "The resulting plants will not be anywhere near as desirable."

Often the term "number of days" follows a plant's name. This refers to the number of days expected to pass before harvest. For crops that are planted from transplants, it is the number of days after setting out the transplants. For seed-grown crops, it is from when the seed is sown.

"Many times you will see reference made to planting crops like cucumber, pumpkins, and squash in 'hills,'" Stack says. "This does not mean you physically mound up the soil into small volcanoes and plant the seeds at the top. It simply means you put several seeds, usually three, in one location on flat ground in a triangle pattern.

"If planting more than one 'hill,' just move over the recommended spacing before planting the next three seeds."

"Spacing suggestions" is another term common in plant descriptions. This distance is suggested in order to give the plant sufficient room to grow, often resulting in a more abundant harvest as opposed to very tightly grown plants that are now in competition with each other and usually producing less and lesser quality.

Tomato growers will see references to "determinate" and "indeterminate" varieties. The determinate types tend to be shorter, more compact plants. The branches end in flower clusters, creating a shorter plant. These are great for small space gardens, container gardens, or for those who don't like to do much staking.

Indeterminate types get tall and often need staking or caging to keep them upright and off the ground. The ends of the stems do not end in flower clusters and just keep getting longer and longer.

"'Deadheading' sounds like a gruesome term but you see it often in reference to flowers," Stack explains. "This term simply means that the older flowers are cut off, resulting in the plant producing more flowers.

"Deadheading is often done with zinnias, marigolds, salvia, dahlia, geranium, and other larger, single-stem flowers. If older flowers are left on the plant, fewer and fewer new flowers are produced. So, for maximum flower production, 'off with their heads.'"

"Monoecious" and "gynoecious" are terms in the garden's "sex" story. It takes male and female flowers to make things like cucumbers, melons, squash, and pumpkins. These plants often have separate male and female flowers on the same vine. They are monoecious.

"But breeders have developed all-female flower-producing plants such as cucumbers," says Tack. "These are called gynoecious. This creates the potential for more fruit in a smaller space.

"But how can reproduction happen without a few male flowers? Packed with the seeds of gynoecious cucumber seeds are a few seeds of plants that will produce male and female flowers. These are usually easy to find as they are often dyed pink or blue. Make sure you plant a few of these in a row of your gynoecious hybrids and your pollination problems will be solved."

And what about the "alphabet soup" of the garden?

"When shopping for tomatoes, you may see letters following a variety name," Stack says. "Letters such as 'Vt,' 'EB,' 'A1,' 'F1,' or 'TMV.' They refer to the varieties' ability to have resistance or tolerance to disease and the more letters the better.

"Plant breeders try to breed in resistance to common disease. This limits or eliminates fungicide sprays and assures you of a more productive harvest. Vt refers to verticillium wilt (soil borne disease), EB refers to early blight (leaf disease), F1 refers to fusarium wilt race 1 (soil borne disease), and TMV refers to tobacco mosaic virus (viral disease)."

Source: Greg Stack, Extension Educator, Horticulture,

© 2005 The Cairo Gate