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Will 'old' seed grow?

Beets do best in at-home trial, but other vegetables can still sprout, too

Beet seedlings
This Dutch Baby Ball beet sprouted from 6-year-old seed. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)






It’s a common dilemma: Leftover seeds.

Like most longtime vegetable gardeners, I accumulate way more seed packets than I can actually grow in my limited space. And each year, I tend to acquire more seeds in different varieties -- wowed by pretty pictures or tantalizing descriptions – instead of using up what I have on hand.

But this season with seed shortages online and limited offerings in stores, I revisited my collection of leftovers and was shocked to see the age on those pretty packets. Some were more than a decade old.

Can you plant old seeds? Sure; it depends on how old is “old.” The real question is: Will they grow?

Seed packets are stamped with the year they’re intended for planting. It’s not an expiration date, but a packing date.

Seeds lose their vitality – their life force and ability to sprout – at different rates, depending on species. Onions and leeks lose their vitality in just one year. Other seeds will still sprout five years or more after packing.

Beet seed packets
These older beet seeds were still good to grow.

In a winter garden experiment, I planted a dozen packets of seeds – all of them older than five years – in blocks in a backyard raised bed. I gave them lots of time and water. Sprouts of lettuce, carrots, onions and radishes never appeared.

The only blocks to sprout and grow? The beets. From Renee’s Garden, Heirloom Chioggia (vintage 2013) and Dutch Baby Ball (packed for 2015) both are growing and maturing.

So, “old” beet seeds can be planted with some success. I suspect the same will hold true of chard.

Of course, seed companies would prefer that we buy more seed each year. I know I will and already have.

But I also plan to be more mindful of using the seed I have on hand in a more timely fashion.

Seed vitality is often tied to how that seed was stored. Seed should be stored in a cool, dark place (below 50 degrees) in its original packaging. That helps maintain a stable moisture content. Too much moisture, the seed will sprout or rot. Not enough, it dries out and loses its vitality.

High Mowing Organic Seeds came up with this handy chart almost 10 years ago. It’s a good reference point when sorting your seed packets and deciding what to grow – and what won’t grow.


Seed type Longevity with proper seed storage

Artichokes

5 years

Arugula

3 years

Beans

3 years

Beets

4 years

Broccoli

3 years

Brussels Sprouts

4 years

Cabbage

4 years

Carrots

3 years

Cauliflower

4 years

Celery/Celeriac

5 years

Chard

4 years

Collards

5 years

Corn

2 years

Cress

5 years

Cucumbers

5 years

Eggplant

4 years

Endive/Escarole

5 years

Fennel

4 years

Kale

4 years

Kohlrabi

4 years

Leeks

1 year

Lettuce

5 years

Melons

5 years

Mustard

4 years

Okra

2 years

Onions

1 year

Peas

3 years

Peppers

2 years

Pumpkins

4 years

Radish

5 years

Rutabagas

4 years

Spinach

2-3 years

Summer Squash

4 years

Tomatoes

4 years

Turnips

5 years

Watermelon

4 years

Winter Squash

4 years





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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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