The avid gardener among us knows seed catalogs are starting to show up in the mailbox and hardware stores and garden centers have their seed displays in full view.
If you are like me, your eyes are much bigger than your garden and there were many seeds still in the cupboard from last season’s purchases. Can you use these seeds this season? Is there a good chance they will germinate if planted?
Most vegetable seeds remain viable or able to germinate for three years or more when stored properly. A few vegetables such as spinach, onion and sweet corn produce seeds that remain viable for a shorter period of time. These probably would be best purchased fresh each year or at least every second year. However, most vegetable seeds can be stored for several years and still exhibit high rates of germination. But storage conditions are very important.
If you are keeping seeds from one year to another try to keep them as dry as possible. Enclosing them in a glass jar, plastic food storage box or other airtight container is best. This keeps the seeds dry and also will protect against insect infestation and feeding by rodents. Periodically check the seeds to make sure there is no mold. Discard any damaged or decaying seed. Although refrigeration is not necessary, keeping seeds as cool as possible, but not freezing, also prolongs life.
If seeds have been kept for a year or more, check their germination using a procedure called the rag doll test. Wrap 10 seeds of each packet in a moist paper towel. The paper towel should be moist, not dripping wet. Roll or fold the towel to enclose the seeds and stuff the seed-containing towels into a zipper lock bag and seal.
You will need to label each towel if more than one is placed in a bag. Label with a pencil or waterproof marker prior to wetting or enclose a label with the seeds. Place the seeds in a warm area where the temperature remains between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Most seeds that are going to germinate should do so in a week or two.
If 75 percent or more of the seeds germinated, plant the seeds as you normally would in your garden. If germination is around 50 percent, it is still fine to use the seeds but you may want to plant the seeds twice a thick as your normally would to make up for the lower germination rate. If germination is low, say 30 percent or less, it probably would be best to purchase fresh seeds.
When you purchase seeds, be sure to read the label and buy only seeds packaged for the current growing season. This will ensure you are getting the freshest seeds.