Skip to main content
Over the Garden Fence

Get your seeds early in 2021


In 2020, many garden retailers found themselves with empty shelves or running very low on seeds and other common garden items. Like any other industry, future orders are based on previous sales with a projected increase to match sales goals. Seed producers base their production on the orders they get from retailers without a lot of cushion. (There is not always a good market for leftover seed.)

Longtime vegetable gardeners have started planning this winter for next year's garden. Some have started their seed lists or maybe even ordered already. There are several things to know and consider when planning your growing season and buying seeds. Here are a few things to ask yourself:

Can we use seeds from last year? Should we buy fresh seed?

As a rule, the larger the seed, the longer they can be stored. Very tiny seeds, like lettuces, need to be fresh every year. Fresh seed should be labeled for the 2021 growing season. If not, there should be a revised germination rate provided. This helps us with how many seeds per foot to sow and still get the stand we expect. If you have leftover seed at home, you also can do a simple germination test to see if you should buy additional supplies.

How much seed do we need?

The quick answer is to know your planned amount of space for that crop and consult the seed packet for a sowing rate. That recommended sowing rate allows for some natural loss, but can still leave seedlings overcrowded when sowing directly in the garden. Remember, whether seeds are started indoors or directly in the garden, they will require some thinning for best productivity later in the garden. Indoors at the seedling stage, those two or three seeds per pot will need to be thinned to one per seedling pot before transplanting. Pro tip: Cut off the extra seedling since pulling it can damage the roots of the one you want to keep.

When do we plant each type of seed?

Seed packets are full of great information, including when to directly sow seeds and often, to keep us on track for outdoor planting, those seed packets also will let you know how many weeks out to start the seeds indoors. This is based on our “Average Frost Free Date,” something that is a bit of moving target each spring, but it is a good planning tool to consider. Many gardeners start their seedings too early!

What else do we need?

If you are going to start those seeds indoors and grow into vegetable transplants for the garden, be sure you can locate and buy seeding starting flats, soilless seed-starting media (soilless so there are no potential fungal pathogens to ruin your seed starting efforts), and the needed transplant media when you go from the seedling flat to transplant pot. Optional equipment could be heat pads to provide those tender and warm loving vegetables the best soil temperatures to germinate in, and – taking it to the next level –supplemental lighting. Supplying the right amount of light has become much easier with LED lighting fixtures and the higher output fluorescent tubes.

2021 will be here before we know it. To be sure you get the seed varieties you want, order early from the catalogs or online and, if shopping in store, hit those seed racks early.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.