Understanding Your Seed Catalog Terminology

Understanding the seed catalog terminology can be tricky, and we have put together a list of common terminology and explained them all in layman’s terms so everyone can understand!

It’s that time of year again; the seed catalogs start appearing in your mailbox. Seasoned gardens look forward to these catalogs and pour over them, picking out what they will be planting in this year’s garden. Even as an experienced gardener, it can be intimidating due to the sheer number of options; what does all this seed catalog terminology mean? How do you choose between 20 different cucumber choices?

Each variety brings something different to the table, but how do you decipher the description’s terminology to know precisely what you are getting? Why is one a heirloom, the other a hybrid, and the third an F1? What is the difference between determinate vs. indeterminate? Are they trying to confuse us on purpose? Take a couple minutes at frequently used seed catalog terminology, this way you make the best educated decision for your plants for this year’s garden.

Here is a full rundown of the terms and phrases used in seed descriptions and what they mean:

Seed Catalog Terminology and Definitions:

Certified Organic

Certified Organic seeds are seeds that have been produced and processed according to specific organic standards and regulations. These standards ensure the seeds are free from synthetic chemicals, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and other prohibited substances. In addition, the seeds must come from organic farming plants to be considered Certified Organic. These methods emphasize using natural fertilizers, compost, crop rotation, and biological pest control instead of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. 


Heirloom seeds, in seed catalog terminology, are open-pollinated seeds passed down and remain unchanged for years, traditionally in a specific area for at least 50 years. These heirloom’s history can be traced back and gives an interesting insight into how people were planting the same seeds decades earlier.


Hybrid seeds, not to be confused with GMO seeds, combines two different species or varieties. To accomplish this, humans control the pollination of the two plants to cross them together deliberately. This is done to combine the desirable traits of both plants into one, such as disease resistance, quicker maturity time, or increased production. 


F1 – Short for filial 1, which means first children. F1 seeds, are the first generation of a hybrid cross. Two plants are specifically crossed to exhibit the dominant traits of each plant. After this first generation, there is no guarantee that successive generations will display the desired characteristics of the initially crossed plants. This means you must buy new seeds yearly if you want to grow the same plant annually. 

Non-GMO seeds

Genetically modified (GM) are created in a lab when the genetic information of one plant is extracted and added to a different plant’s DNA. This is done to select specific traits from one plant, which are then transferred to the new plant. These crosses or traits could not occur naturally, even through cross-breeding techniques. As a result, only some actual GM seeds are available for purchase.

Still, they are available for commercial crops such as corn, soybeans, canola, alfalfa, and some produce – green zucchini and yellow summer squash. In addition, many companies sign the Safe Seed Pledge to state their stance on genetic engineering, and they will not sell or knowingly sell GM seeds. 

Treated Seeds

Treated seeds, also known as seed treatments or seed coatings, are seeds that have been treated with various substances to enhance their performance, protect them from pests and diseases, or improve their overall health and growth.

Pelleted seeds

Pelleted seeds refer to seeds that have been coated or encapsulated with an inert material, typically clay or other binders, to form small pellets or granules. Pelleted seeds are commonly used for lettuce, carrots, and onions. More common in commercial planting when farmers are using mechanized planting systems. The benefits of these seeds are more consistent size and shape, which makes the seeds larger and easier to handle (valuable with the really tiny seeds)

Open Pollinated 

Open-pollinated seeds are produced through natural pollination, typically by wind, insects, or other natural means. These seeds result from pollinating between plants of the same variety or closely related varieties within the same species. Gardeners can save open-pollinated seeds for future planting, as they will reliably reproduce the characteristics of the parent plant.

Days to Maturity

Days to maturity are the time it takes for a plant to reach its full maturity (producing flowers or fruit) from the day it is sown into the ground and measured in terms of the number of days, typically as a range (e.g., 60-70 days). This time range is not a perfect science, as many factors play into your plant’s growth and production. However, use this number as a guide to ensure you have adequate time from planting your seeds to reaching maturity during your growing season.

Days to Germinate

Days to germination is an estimation of when the seeds will sprout after being sowed into the ground. 

Derminate vs indeterinate

Determinate plants have a predetermined growth pattern and reach a specific size before they stop growing. These plants tend to have a more compact form and are often bushy. 

Indeterminate plants, on the other hand, have an indefinite or continuous growth pattern. They continue to grow and produce flowers and fruits throughout their life cycle. Typically indeterminate plants are vining or climbing, requiring support structures, such as trellises. 

Bare Root

Bare root plants are a common way to ship trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials. Common vegetables that are sold are asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries. First, the plant is dug up, and dirt is washed off the roots, then wrapped in moist packing material or airtight plastic wrap. Once they are received, it is best to plant quickly to avoid the roots drying out.

Annual, biennial vs. perennial

Annual plants complete their life cycle within a single growing season. They germinate from seeds, grow, flower, produce seeds, and die within one year.

Biennial plants have a two-year life cycle. The first year of growth is seed germination and leaf development. The second year is dedicated to flowering and seed set production before dying.

Perennial plants can live for multiple years, often many years. Perennial Plants can produce flowers and seeds repeatedly. 


Sets are essentially immature bulbs that still have considerable room for growth. They are grown from seeds the year prior, then plucked from the ground, and stored in a dormant state until replanted. As a result, they are effortless to plant and grow and have a much lower failure rate.

Direct Seed or Sow

These are seeds that it is recommended to plant directly into the ground. Typically fast, growing vegetables or plants that do not transplant well from indoors to your outdoor garden may be labeled as direct seed or sow.


These seedlings are started indoors from seeds, purchased in a container at a nursery, or shipped as a dry root. Then replanted into your outdoor garden and typically recommended for vegetables with long days to maturity or for those growing warm weather plants in cool climates. You can find a complete seedling transplanting guide here.

See understanding the seed catalog terminology isn’t hard! Now armed with this knowledge of the typical seed catalog terminology, scroll through your catalog confidently. Understanding these descriptions will ensure you get precisely what plant you want and will fit your needs perfectly. 

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