Garden Jargon For Beginners : Starting Seeds

As part of your first foray into the gardening world you are perhaps thinking of starting your own seeds.  Starting seeds is satisfying but can also be frustrating. Of course, one should plan for success but do accept setbacks as a great learning experience!  The whole process of buying and starting seeds is really a lot of fun and there is nothing more satisfying than eating a tomato from your garden that you have started from seed.

Once again, reminiscent of plant shopping, one is faced with seed racks at the garden centre that contain a million and one seed packets. Seed starting has its own jargon that is helpful for beginners to know.  There are also a few things to consider when buying seeds. Two of the most important are planning where these new seedlings will go in your garden and how much room in your home to devote to this new project.  Keep in mind that little seeds do not remain little for long and need more space as they grow. They will be in your home for two months or more.   Start small.  And by ‘small’ I mean do not go overboard with seed quantity started.  Share seeds with a friend or relative.     It is also recommended that you start a seed-starting journal.  Record seed variety names, dates started, germination dates, transplant dates and general observations. 

Seed and Seed Starting Jargon

Types of Seed

Seed packets are usually categorized into annuals, perennials, biennials, vegetables, herbs, and wildflowers.


Heirloom Seeds 

Seed varieties that have been grown for 50 years or more. They are never hybrid or GMOs. You can plant these seeds year after year, and they will remain the same.  Vegetable heirloom seeds are very popular.  Many people claim that heirloom vegetables are more flavorful.  Flavor is sometimes reduced when hybridization occurs. 

Hybrid Seeds

Hybrid seeds are crosses of heirloom varieties.  Most seeds sold today are hybrid seeds.  If you save the seeds from a hybrid plant and plant them the next year you may not get what you had the previous year!

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)...

...Are genetically modified seeds.  The basic genetic makeup of the seed is altered; usually to make them resistant to a herbicide.  Most seed suppliers today will label their seed packets non-GMO. If in doubt, go to the seed supplier’s website for that specific information. 

 Photo:  Fothergills Lavatera Seed                           

Seed Packets and Their Information    

Seed packets contain a lot of information. The Fothergills flower seed packages contain the name, number of seeds in the packet and a picture of a seedling.  Planting depth is also noted.   The bright sun tells us that Lavatera can be planted in full sun outdoors.   Especially helpful is the information provided by the color chart – months you can start seed indoors, transplant, direct seed outdoors and months when it will flower.  (Indoor starting times should be double checked for Saskatoon on the internet).  It also includes growing from seed information and the best before date to achieve the highest germination percentage.  


 Photo: Fothergills Beefsteak Tomato Seed

Vegetable seed packets are very similar to flower packets – you are also provided with a vegetable description (in this case a tomato), vitamin content and garden plant spacing.   The most important vegetable growing information though is on the front – days to maturity.

Some perennial and annal seeds require the seed to be stratified.  Stratification means to chill the seed as if it is going through a period of winter.  This information may or may not appear on the seed package.  Once again, the internet is an endless source of information. 

Days To Maturity

I have found in the gardening world that ‘Days to Maturity’ means different things to different people!  Here are a few definitions……

From the time the seed is sown to when the plant is ready to flower and set fruit.

Many gardeners start counting the days to maturity once the first pair of true leaves appear on the seedling.  (See picture below)

Some people like to start counting days to maturity when they transplant their started seeds outdoors.  This definition also applies to the small transplants you purchase.

 Photo: Seedling with one pair of true leaves.

True Leaves

When a seed germinates, the first two ‘leaves’ you see above the soil are actually part of the seed of the plant.  They are called ‘cotyledons’.  They supply food to the seedling during the germination process.  The next set of leaves produced are the first set of ‘true leaves’. In the photo above, the true leaves are the patterned, ruffled leaves. 


So, what supplies do I need to start my seeds?


...For starting seeds can be just about anything as long as the container has drainage holes or can be modified to have drainage.  Many people use egg cartons, yoghurt containers, clear plastic cups – the list is endless. There are also containers specifically created for seed starting.

Seed Starting Mix

Sterile and soilless.  A soilless mix is just that – it does not contain soil.  In some cases, it is made up of vermiculite, perlite, ground sphagnum moss or coir.  This allows the gardener to control watering, fertilization and allows oxygen to penetrate easily to the root zone.


Photo:  Flat/tray without drainage holes.

Flats or Trays

Long, shallow black plastic containers.  Some have drainage holes in the bottom; some do not. 

Plastic Inserts or Packs

Inserts or packs are placed in trays and have four or six ‘cells’ per pack that are filled with soil and contain one plant per cell.  Packs are used for starting some annuals and vegetables. 


Clear plastic lids that fit overtop the flats/trays.  A dome increases the humidity within the tray to help sustain the seed starting process.



Do not forget to label your seedlings!  For obvious reasons, this is very important.

Photo: Plantable Coir Pots

Peat or Coir Pellets/Containers

In Canada we have found that peat bogs are not a sustainable resource.  True, peat moss, pots and pellets are still available but are gradually being replaced with coir pellets and containers.  Coir is the fibrous material of a coconut.  You can start your seeds in coir/peat pellets or containers and transplant them straight into a larger container or the garden without disturbing the roots.  This is particularly successful with plants that do not like root disturbance such as cucumbers and sweet peas.  Line up your pellets in the bottom of a tray/flat and add warm water.  In about 15-30 minutes they will expand, and you can press one or two seeds down into the center of the pellet. 


Nicking the outer shell or coat of a seed to encourage it to germinate.  This reduces the days to germination time.  The easiest and safest way to do this is to use a pair of nail clippers and nick the edge of each seed.  Seeds such as sweet peas, morning glories, corn and cucumbers benefit from scarification and soaking overnight in water before planting. 

Photo:  Sweet Pea Bloom


Small plastic packages that are displayed with seed packets such as peas, beans, and sweet peas.  This is a microbial inoculant which is a rhizobium bacteria that is applied to legume seed before planting.  It is a safe, living bacteria that occurs naturally in the ground – more in some areas than others.  This inoculant helps peas, beans, and sweet peas to convert nitrogen in the air into another form of nitrogen that is more readily used by these plants to improve plant size, yield, and longevity of bloom.  Store inoculant in a cool dry place.  It does have an expiration date.  It is best to use it in the year it is purchased.  Excess inoculant can be worked into the soil that you have prepared for your beans, peas, and sweet peas. 


Damping Off

A disease that kills seedlings before or after they germinate.  Sprouted seeds will collapse at the soil line.  Always wash your containers, hands, and seed starting supplies with a detergent/water mix before starting the planting process.   You can also soak your supplies in a 9 parts water – 1 part bleach mix for 30 minutes then rinse with clean water.   Cleanliness is really the best damping off preventative.  Once your seeds are planted you can lightly sprinkle the soil with cinnamon which is an anti-fungal.  Provide good air circulation around your seedlings with a small fan turned on every day for a few hours.  Do not point it directly at the seedlings. 

Germination Rate

Average number of seeds that germinate over a 5–10-day period.  Some seeds will take longer to germinate than others. 

Germination Percentage

Estimate of the viability of a group of seeds.  The number of sprouted seedlings over the number of seeds planted times one hundred will give you the germination percentage for those seeds.  Fresh seed will always have the highest germination percentage.   Seeds are variable in their longevity.  For example, cucumber and tomato seed can last up to 5 years or longer, beans and carrots up to 5 years, and corn, leeks, and onions 1-2 years. 

Heated Growing Pads   

These can be a bit of an investment but well worth it if you start a lot of your own seeds.  The pad is placed under a planted seed tray, providing warmth to the soil.  This increases the germination rate.


Grow Lights

Another worthwhile investment.  The even and proper light they provide for your seedlings will prevent the plants from stretching and remain sturdy.  Invest in a timer as well. 


Store Leftover Seeds...

...In a dry, dark, airtight container.  Make sure you label the container with seed name, quantity of seed stored, year purchased and place in a cool location.   



The projected frost- free days in Saskatoon for outdoor gardening in 2022 is 126 days.

          Approximate last spring frost – May 15

          Approximate first fall frost – September 19.

 Photo: Seedlings in Cell Packs

1 comment

  • Thank you for the beautiful looking plants in your greenhouse. It was eye catching to visit yesterday. I also want to commend your staff who are accessible and ready to help. The women(staff) who return each year and I spoke to one yesterday are amazing, knowledgeable and passionate. Well done! KB

    Katharine Bell

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