Winter is my favorite season in the vegetable garden. In December and January, there are no weeds or bugs or diseases. There’s room to plant 16 kinds of lettuce and row after row of old-fashioned cutting flowers There is also—miracle!—enough time to wash 16 kinds of lettuce, make big, blowsy bouquets of the flowers and then still sit on the sunny rock wall, wine glass in hand, admiring my picture-perfect potager.
Come February, however, the jig is up. Making out seed orders requires coming down to earth, in particular to the amount of earth I actually have (less than an acre), and difficult as it is to choose only three dozen tomato plants, the really tough calls involve the peripherals. Will I ever actually make pickles from the otherwise useless West Indian gherkins? If the Double Click cosmos have wimped out three years running, is it time to admit defeat?
Selecting new seeds has been hard forever, but deciding which leftovers to keep has gotten much easier because, except in a few rare instances, I no longer bother to perform germination tests. For years I walked a moral tightrope, knowing it’s wasteful to buy new seeds if the old ones are still good yet hating to hassle around with testing every doubtful packet to determine whether those seeds were viable or not.
All that changed the year I started keeping more detailed notes about the yields, noting on each row marker not only the date of planting and source of the seed, but also the date on the packet. Big lesson in the difference between viability and vigor! The fact that a thing can send out a sprout when sandwiched between damp paper towels does not mean it would sprout from the ground or, if it did, that it would grow into a strong plant, able to cope with bad weather and fight off disease. When compared with fresh seeds, older ones often failed to perform well.
There are some general rules for predicting how long a seed will stay useful, but that’s definitely the word for it: general. Seed companies, extension services and other authorities offer widely differing estimates of seed life. Lettuce seeds, to give just one example, can live anywhere from two to six years, depending on which list you consult.
To some extent, that wide range is to allow leeway for less than ideal storage—anywhere along the seed’s journey from grower to retailer to customer. To control the front end of the chain, I buy from trusted mail-order companies and limit my in-store impulse purchases to early in the season. As for control on my end: Not happening, because I am not a control freak.
Seeds keep best when dry and cold; an airtight jar in the refrigerator or freezer is very good (assuming seeds were nice and dry when they went into the jar). Okay but not great is on the dining room table and then up in the unheated back room. Multiple trips from jar to table to garden to table to garden to back room: Well, no.
The good news? An honest look at the combination of crap-shoot life estimates, my casual storage arrangements and the vigor problem has relieved me of all compunction. These days, my general rule is to save only those considered to be long-lived seeds (squash, melons, tomatoes), toss short-lived ones (onions, peppers) and keep the middling ones (carrots, beans, peas) if and only if I have enough seed to plant thickly and enough time to replant if necessary. Inevitably, this leads to discarding seeds that might very well have been fine, but I wind up saving myself a lot of time and disappointment. As for the moral component, I figure giving additional business to seed companies I admire more or less evens things out.
The bad news? I admire too many seed companies. There’s no way to order from all of them, or to list more than a taste, but here are three favorites from different parts of the country: http://fedcoseeds.com, http://www.southernexposure.com, http://www.territorialseed.com.
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