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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 Nov. 27

Before the rain comes later in the week, take advantage of sunny, calm days:

* This may be your last chance this season for the first application of copper fungicide spray to peach and nectarine trees. Leaf curl, which shows up in the spring, is caused by a fungus that winters as spores on the limbs and around the tree in fallen leaves. Sprays are most effective now, but they need a few days of dry weather after application to really “stick.” If you haven’t yet, spray now.

* Rake and compost leaves, but dispose of any diseased plant material. For example, if peach and nectarine trees showed signs of leaf curl this year, clean up under trees and dispose of those leaves instead of composting.

* Make sure storm drains are clear of any debris.

* Give your azaleas, gardenias and camellias a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim chrysanthemums to 6 to 8 inches above the ground after they’re done blooming. Keep potted mums in their containers until next spring. Then, they can be planted in the ground, if desired, or repotted.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while dormant.

* Plant bulbs for spring bloom. Don’t forget the tulips chilling in the refrigerator. Other suggestions: daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas.

* Seed wildflowers including California poppies.

* Also from seed, plant sweet pea, sweet alyssum, bachelor buttons and other spring flowers.

* Plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from winter rains.

* Set out cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons.

* Lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cool-season greens can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* If you decide to use a living Christmas tree this year, keep it outside in a sunny location until Christmas week. This reduces stress on the young tree.

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