In January and February I carry out one of my New Year’s resolutions: I take inventory of my seed collection. First, I gather up all of the seeds that I’ve squirreled away in a variety of places like the refrigerator crisper, the pockets of jackets and sport coats, and dresser drawers. Then, over several evenings and weekends, I decide what to save, trade, or toss out. Strengthening my resolve is the constant flow of seed catalogs into my mail box which boast about vegetable and flower varieties that are “bigger,” “brighter,” and “better.” I just have to make the room.
To help me decide what stays and what goes into the compost heap, I ask myself several questions:
- How old is the seed? Seeds remains viable or are capable of germinating over a certain period of time. Here are the ballpark ages of several vegetable seeds that when stored under cool, dry conditions should be expected to produce a good stand of healthy seedlings:
1 year or less: Onions, Parsley, Parsnips, and Salsify
2 years: Corn, Okra, and Peppers
3 years: Beans, Cowpeas (Southern peas), and Peas
4 years: Beets, Fennel, Mustard, Pumpkins, Rutabagas, Squash, Swiss chard, Tomatoes, Turnips, and Watermelons
5 years: Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Eggplant, Muskmelons, Radishes, and Spinach.
• Is the seed viable? Perform a simple germination test. Count out at least 20 seeds and space them out on two or three layers of moistened paper towels. Roll the towels up carefully to keep the seeds separate and place the roll in a plastic bag. Check the seeds in 2 or 3 days and every day thereafter for about a week or so to see if any germinated. If few seeds germinate, you may want to discard the seed and buy fresh seed for the upcoming gardening season.
• Is the seed the actual variety you wanted to save? If the vegetables are self-pollinated like beans, peas, lettuce, and nonhybrid tomatoes, expect to have true-to-type varieties. However, expect surprises when planting the seeds from insect- or wind-pollinated varieties. Cross-pollination will occur between different varieties of insect-pollinated vegetables such as cucumber, melon, squash, or pumpkin. The same goes for wind-pollinated beets, sweet corn, spinach, and Swiss chard. You may want to discard these seeds.
• Was the seed collected from a hybrid? Hybrid or F1hybrid seed is the offspring of a cross made between two parent varieties. If you preferred the original hybrid, discard these seeds. The offspring from an F1 hybrid will be a mixture of plant types, most of which will be inferior to the original parent.
• Do you have any seeds or varieties that a fellow gardener would be willing to swap for? In the eyes of some gardeners, a “Mickey Mantle” or “Joe DiMaggio” could take the form of a Sweet Baby Blue corn or a Super Italian Paste tomato. Perhaps you can save these seeds and trade them for something else.
When I answer these questions, I find that very few seeds ever get composted. Probably because I always ask myself one final question: “Are you really sure that you can’t find any room for this little packet of seeds?” The answer is always, “But of course.” My wife has eight dresser drawers with plenty of room!
Bob Polomski (c) 2015