We gardening nerds can rack up a lot of seeds. Between those I save from my own plants, the extras I buy, the packets I receive as gifts and those that get foisted onto me at seed swaps, it’s amazing how much they pile up. Each year, when the weather starts to get really dreary, I take a moment to review and organize my collection.
The average seed packet contains anywhere from a dozen to a over a thousand seeds, depending on the brand and variety. One $3 envelope of chamomile can often keep a home gardener supplied for three years or more. To get the most out of your purchases, it’s important to store your seeds properly.
My favourite way to house seeds is in a sturdy, sealable container that’s about the same width and height as the envelopes themselves. This way, the packets can stand up on their own, which makes things a breeze when you’re rifling through a large collection. Freezer bags also work well if you’re dealing with a smaller amount.
Many gardening books will encourage you to keep your seeds in your basement so that they stay at a consistent, cool temperature. What if you’re like me and don’t have a basement? I store my seeds in the fridge. It’s a bit risky, because fridges are places of high humidity, and high humidity can damage seeds. In order to keep moisture out, I place a few desiccant packs — the kind that come in bottles of vitamins and protein powder — in the container with the seeds. You can also use a tablespoon of powdered milk, wrapped up in cheesecloth.
Seeds have expiration dates. Some, like lettuce, last for three years if stored properly. Others, like parsnips, have a shelf life of only a year. If the expiration date has passed, there’s a chance that the seeds won’t germinate as readily. For this reason, I like to go through my seeds at the end of each season and remove any packets that are past their best before date. Most seed packets will list the year that the seeds were packed for, and their “average shelf life”. What do you do with expired seeds? I like to use some of them for experiments like November sowing, or for growing microgreens. Honestly, there’s a good chance that your seeds will last beyond their expiration date, but I don’t like to take chances with my main-season planting. If you’re curious, try a paper towel germination test.
While I’m reviewing my seeds for their expiration dates, I also like to take a moment to remove any seeds that I don’t realistically expect to plant in my garden. Those flowers that someone made me take at a swap that are “only a little bit invasive”? The seeds that I saved myself a couple of years back, which look like tomatoes, but are in a completely blank envelope? The spinach that never germinated? All of them have to go.
While reviewing your seeds, take note of items you might need to purchase for next year. Is your favourite red mizuna getting down to the last few seeds? Add it to your list.
If you have a big collection, It’s wise to organize your seeds in some way. Most people go by variety: a section for tomatoes, a section for lettuce, and so on. Personally, I prefer to go by date. I use index cards to divide my seeds by planting month. That way, when I get out to the garden in March, I don’t have to think too hard about what I can plant: it’s all there and ready to go in my seed box.
As with all things in life, a little bit of organization can save you a lot of time in the long run. Seeds take care of us by providing delicious food, so let’s take care of them.
Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. Join her on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM every Tuesday afternoon at 5:00pm for Fabulous Urban Gardens on “Home” with host Jana Lynne White. She blogs about urban food gardening at http://abundantcity.net.
Most seed packets will include their “usual seed life” (left) and “packed for” date (right). Use desiccant packets, like those that come with vitamins, to control the humidity level in the fridge. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.