Starting vegetable seeds at home can be rewarding in many ways: It's cheap. You can find a much wider range of varieties in seed packets than you can as plants in garden centers in spring. And you can make sure that your food is raised without pesticides, which is better for you and the environment.
But if you are new to the seed-starting game, even choosing seeds can be confusing. Seed packets and descriptions in catalogs and Web sites may be full of flowery adjectives but omit essential facts, or they may consist of insider shorthand that seems like it requires a cryptographer. And there's no one key: "The only standard is that there's no standard," says Nona Koivula, executive director of the National Garden Bureau, a trade association in Downers Grove.Here are some tips to help you crack the seed-starting code.
Know your conditions. Before you start shopping, know where you are going to plant, how much light the site gets (most vegetables require at least eight hours a day of direct sun), where you will get water and what kind of soil you have (or can get).
Hang onto the catalog. Often some essential information is in the catalog description (or on the Web site) and the rest is on the packet. You may need to refer to both.
Check definitions. Many terms and codes vary from catalog to catalog or from plant to plant. Catalog companies may have idiosyncratic codes for different methods of germination, for example.
And watch out for the slippery meaning of a phrase such as "65 days," indicating the days until you can harvest mature fruit.
Sometimes it means 65 days after you plant the seed. But sometimes -- even for a different plant in the same catalog -- it may mean 65 days after you transplant seedlings that you started indoors several weeks earlier out to the garden. Descriptions usually don't specify the meaning because catalog companies assume you know that peas and radishes are best sown outdoors but tomatoes need to be started indoors. If you have any doubt about a catalog term, call or e-mail and ask.
Don't expect precision. Seed descriptions are fairly general. Depending on your conditions, the weather, the care you give them and many other factors, plants and fruits may be a somewhat different size than stated or not quite follow the schedule. Don't let it throw you; as you gain experience, you'll have more control and a better idea what to expect.
Where to learn more
Here are some good general references on growing vegetables from seed:
"Burpee The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically" by Karan Davis Cutler (Wiley, 448 pages, $39.95)
"Vegetable Gardening: From Planting to Picking -- The Complete Guide to Creating a Bountiful Garden" by Fern Marshall Bradley and Jane Courtier (Reader's Digest, 288 pages, $32.95)
"Guide to Illinois Vegetable Gardening" by James A. Fizzell (Cool Springs Press, 272 pages, $12.95)
"Success with Seed" by Karen Park Jennings (Park Seed, 348 pages, $24.95). Order from parkseed.com or find entire contents at successwithseed.org.
National Garden Bureau fact sheets, ngb.org
Cornell University Extension vegetable Growing Guides, gardening.cornell.edu/vegetables.
University of Illinois Extension vegetable pages, unbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies.