Jane McLeod: The health and welfare of seeds
June 3, 2012
Let's say you find several packets of seeds — some opened, some unopened — on a shelf or in the back of a drawer. Are they still any good?
The answer, of course, is maybe so, and maybe not.
The shelf life of seeds is controlled by the crop itself, the quality of the seeds and how the seeds are stored. They like to be kept cool and dry (humidity is their biggest threat) and away from sun. If you didn't throw the packet on the kitchen window sill or find them in your jeans pocket after a wash, there is hope.
On the back of a packet you'll find a packing date (packed for 2010) and/or a sell by date (12/10). Because it's spring 2012, are they viable? There's not total agreement from experts on exactly how long seeds remain viable, but there is general agreement that most seeds will last several years. For some of the vegetable crops we can grow in our gardens, some of the short-lived seeds (one to two years) are parsnip, corn and spinach. Medium-lived seeds (two to three years) are bean, pea, carrot, squash and lettuce. Long-lived seeds (three to five years) include radish, broccoli, brussels sprouts, beets, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, tomato and turnip.
Assuming responsible storage and give or take on the timeframe, there is every reason to give leftover seeds a try. That said, and considering the price of a common packet of seeds (not heirlooms), our short growing season and the high desire to harvest a crop, it also doesn't hurt to toss the packet and start with a fresh supply, or to at least have a backup supply ready if the experiment fails.
If frugal, desperate or curious you can perform a quick germination test by placing some of the seeds on several layers of moist paper towels, rolled up without letting the seeds touch, and kept moist in plastic wrap or a sealed plastic bag and out of direct sun but in a warm (65 to 70 degrees) and bright location. Check every couple of days, and if the seeds still are viable you'll see most or all of them transform to seedlings within two weeks.
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Seeds, of course, are living things and would very much like to produce a plant for you. On the back of a vegetable seed packet you will read exactly how the manufacturer would like you to sow the seeds for best results. You'll see desired seed depth, seed spacing, row spacing, thinning (when and how far apart), when to plant outside (usually timed for before or after the last average frost), whether you can start the seed indoors, length of time till germination, and when you can expect to harvest.
Add to this the seed's final living environment (condition of your soil) and decide if it is lovely and lush or needs some amendment. Finally, water and harvest from garden patch to plate, marveling all the while how that itty-bitty little seed became a lush carrot you are happily crunching your way through.
Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Routt County Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.