Do you have a stash of old seed packets tucked away with your gardening gear, thrown on a shelf in the garage or mingling with this-and-that in a drawer? I bet you do. Do they hold the promise of healthy plants or are they past their prime?
Seed packets have a sell-by date, but depending on the seed type and the storage, they can be viable far longer.
According to Colorado State University, flower and vegetable seeds can be stored at room temperature for a year without significant loss of germination. Given optimal dry and cool conditions, some seeds can be viable for up to ten years. Colorado’s semi-arid climate is advantageous for seed saving as moisture shortens seed’s shelf life. This CSU publication contains details on seed saving, the longevity of common plant seeds and germination rates.
If you want to know if your past season’s seeds are worth planting, you can easily find out by doing a germination test. Count out 10, 20, or 30 seeds and spread them on several layers of moistened paper towels. Carefully roll them in the paper so the seeds stay separated. Place the roll in a plastic bag and store in a warm spot without direct sunlight, such as the top of the refrigerator.
Check your seeds for signs of sprouting after 2-3 days and daily after that for about two weeks, keeping the towels moist. After that time, divide the number of sprouted seeds by the number you started with and you have the germination rate. You’ll likely find that the rate is reduced, but the seed is still useful if you plant more seed than you need, using the germination rate as a planting guide.
If few seeds sprout, they are too old and not worth saving. By doing the test, you’ll avoid being disappointed by poorly performing plants in the garden.
February is a great time to take stock of your seed stash and purchase what you need for the year. And if you have some still-good seed you don’t want, consider sharing them with a gardening friend or donating them to a school or community garden.
Written by: Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener
Meet the DMG Garden Squad is a new blog feature and a way to get better acquainted with some of our dedicated volunteers.
Meet Jan Appelbaum
Most Master Gardeners know the value of making their own compost. But Jan Appelbaum discovered there’s more to compost than a good soil amendment.
“My best success last year grew out of the compost bin. There were three or four tomato varieties that grew out of the compost, and they were prolific.” She harvested hundreds of tomatoes from tomato seeds that decided to sprout and grow on their own.
Jan joined the CSU Extension Colorado Master Gardener (CMG) program in 2004, after retiring from a 30-year teaching career in Douglas County. She thought the program would be a good way to provide some structured activity to fill her time.
When she started, the Denver Master Gardeners’ office was located downtown in the Wellington Webb Building. Those were the “good old days” when the pace was quite a bit slower.
“We have the ability to get information faster now, almost instantaneously, and we reach more people now,” Jan said. “But sometimes slow is better, too.”
One of her favorite volunteer activities is interviewing Master Gardener apprentices because there are many different ages, levels of enthusiasm for gardening and levels of expertise. “It’s fun and interesting to hear why people want to be trained to be a master gardener,” she said.
Jan also volunteers as part of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) to track precipitation in all 50 states, Canada and the Bahamas. As a CoCoRaHS volunteer, she measures daily precipitation in her yard and keeps track of the results.
She also volunteers at the annual spring plant sale and helps answer questions at the farmer’s market. One of the advantages of volunteering alongside other Denver Master Gardeners is the collaborative spirit. “At the Master Gardener booth, four brains are better than one.”
The farmer’s market is a valuable and sometimes entertaining outreach opportunity. “It’s always fun when people come up to ask a question but have already made up their mind. Or when people from out of town say ‘That’s not how we do it in Michigan.’ But most people appreciate the help we can give.”
Jan grew up in Connecticut where she admits it was easier to garden. She helped in her family’s huge vegetable garden, but had to learn how to garden in a more challenging environment when she moved to Colorado in 1972.
Her advice to new gardeners, and those new to gardening here, is to be patient and learn by doing.
Some of that advice is based on her own early planting efforts. She recalled planting a miniature Japanese maple tree and giving it too much love.
“I thought it needed water because the leaves were curled, and I killed it by overwatering. Eventually I found out they don’t like to have their roots too wet.”
Jan said she’s grateful for the Master Gardener experience because it’s broadened her gardening knowledge. She thinks everyone who gardens should go through the Master Gardener training, too.
“Gardening for me is very therapeutic,” she said. “It helps connect us with the soil and Mother Nature. Having a sense of nature is getting harder and harder to do in the city, but I’m encouraged to see there are more people getting into gardening now.”
By Jodi Torpey Denver Master Gardener volunteer since 2005