'Tis the Season of Seed Catalogs and Garden Dreams

Claire Splan

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Winter days are a great time to spend poring over seed catalogs and placing orders for those heirloom flowers and vegetables that aren’t easy to come by in six-packs or 4-inch pots in the spring. Nothing can inspire grand garden dreams quite so perfectly than the glossy, four-color pages of a good seed catalog. They make it easy to believe that anyone can successfully grow anything, from the most common garden varieties to the rarest and, of course, fussiest of plants.

Since 2020 was the year that drove more Americans into their gardens than perhaps ever before, seed shopping may be a new experience for some, but don't be intimidated. Growing from seed is the best way to get your choice of the widest array of varieties at the best prices.

There are lots of great seed companies, large and small, and most of them can be depended on to deliver reliably fresh seeds. My all-time favorite seed company is Renee's Garden Seeds, because they not only have an outstanding assortment but they also have the most complete, most informative seed packets that often include tips for harvesting and preparing the edibles and using the ornamentals for the best display in the garden.

Other seed companies I like include Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and Kitazawa Seed Company.

Using leftover seeds

As for all those seeds you have left over from last year--or maybe longer? Time to sort through them and toss the packs that are too old to be viable. Flower seeds vary a great deal in the length of time they will remain viable, but most vegetable seeds, if properly stored, will usually be good for up to five years:

  • 4-5 years: Beets, broccoli, cucumbers, eggplant, kale, lettuce, melons, radishes, squash, tomatoes
  • 2-3 years: Beans, carrots, corn, peas, peppers, spinach
  • 1 year: Onion

Hopefully, in order to keep the seeds fresh, you stored them in an air-tight container in the refrigerator (never in the freezer!). But if you want to know for sure whether or not those older seeds are still worth keeping and planting, there's a simple way to test them.

How to test the viability of seeds

Spare yourself a disappointing spring by testing the viability of the older seeds in your collection before planting time. A simple procedure requiring nothing more than a paper towel, some water, and a plastic bag will give you the information you need to easily calculate the germination rate.

1. Spread 10 seeds (all of the same variety, all from the same seed pack) across one half of a clean paper towel, fold the other half of the towel over to cover the seeds, and spray with water until the paper towel is completely moist.

2. Place the paper towel with the seeds in a Ziploc plastic bag on which you’ve written the date. Attach the seed packet to the plastic bag with a paper clip or tape and set the bag someplace dark and at room temperature where it won’t be disturbed.

3. Check every 3 to 4 days to make sure the paper towel is still moist.

After about 10 days unfold the paper towel and count how many seeds have germinated. (Some seeds are slower to germinate even when fresh so consult the seed packet to see if you should allow more than 10 days.) If at least 7 seeds have sprouted (a 70% germination rate), the seeds should be viable enough to still plant. If only 4 or 5 seeds have sprouted (a 40-50% rate), you can still use them but you should probably plant them twice as thickly as the packet recommends. With less than a 40% germination rate, it’s probably not worth your time to plant those seeds. Toss them and treat yourself to packed-fresh-for-this-year seeds.

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Writer/editor. Author of "California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening" and "California Month-by-Month Gardening."

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