Choosing Seed Varieties – A Beginner’s Guide

Choosing what variety of seeds to plant may seem like a daunting task, especially when faced with the myriad of options that a company like West Coast Seeds has to offer.  How do you choose what kind of carrots to plant, among over thirty options?

Some of the descriptions on the seed packages are pretty self-explanatory, but there are some options and terminology that may be confusing for first-time gardeners.

Hopefully this brief explanation of some of the terms used on seed packaging will help make the choice a little easier for you.

Pelleted Seed:

Some seeds are very small and difficult to handle.  West Coast Seeds and McKenzie both offer some of these seeds with “pelleted” options, which are coated in clay to increase their size.  This makes them easier to handle and space accurately, encouraging more even germination.

Seed Tape:

This is simply another method to make seeds easier to sow, as well as space within a row, because the seeds are embedded at appropriate intervals on a paper tape.  Simply dig a trench at the depth indicated on the package and bury the seed tape.


Awards for seeds are conferred on the basis of important characteristics such as yield, flavour, and plant vigour.

If you’re not sure where to start, an award-winning seed is a good place!

Plant Size:

  • Look for the words “dwarf” or “compact” for smaller plants that would be better suited to a container or small space. However, keep in mind that these descriptions are relative; a “small, compact” zucchini plant will still require at least a 10 gallon container!
  • For bean varieties, “bush beans” will be short, and will not need any support; “pole beans” definitely will require a trellis of some kind to climb.
  • “Determinate” tomato varieties will be relatively small and produce tomatoes over a shorter window; these are good options for containers. Conversely, “indeterminate” tomatoes will keep growing and producing the whole season, so generally need extra support, such as large tomato cages.

Open Pollination (OP):

“Open-pollinated” plants, when bred exclusively with others of the same variety, will produce nearly identical offspring. That is, their most important traits (e.g. size, harvest time, disease/pest resistance, flavour, yield, appearance) will be consistent.  This quality is also referred to as “breeding true” to type.  This means that seeds from this plant can be saved, and used in the future, with dependable results.  Of course, care must be taken to ensure that only plants of the same variety are allowed to pollinate the flowers of your plant, otherwise you will end up with hybrids of unknown quality.


An heirloom seed is simply an open-pollinated seed that has been grown and passed down through generations.  There is much debate over exactly how old the variety must be to be considered an heirloom, so the precise definition varies depending on who you ask.

F1 or Hybrid:

An F1 hybrid is a cross between two different varieties (e.g. two open-pollinated varieties).  The advantage of these hybrids is that they often possess what is known as “hybrid vigour” which often results in healthier, more robust plants, with higher yields.  The unfortunate consequence of growing hybrids, is that you cannot breed two F1 plants of the same variety together and expect the offspring of that plant to be similar to its parents, so you must purchase seeds every year.

Disease Resistance:

These plants are bred to be more resistant to certain diseases, which is a very valuable trait if you have a known issue in your area. If you’re just starting out, and aren’t sure if something is an issue, choosing a variety for its flavor, size, or a particular growth habit may be more important to you.

Hopefully that helps you get started choosing some of the seeds that best suit your tastes, preferences, and garden.

When in doubt, my personal favourite method is to buy one of the blends of multiple kinds of seed; in addition to a colourful harvest, you may notice that one variety or another performs better in your garden.

You may also get a longer harvest period from a blend, since each variety will take more or less time to mature.


Written by Chantel Taylor

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