THE BLACK BEARS, groundhogs and I are hibernating. A combination of icy walking trails, pandemic germs and below freezing temperatures are keeping me indoors. But rather than descend into a Netflix stupor, I am thinking of seeds.
It is easy to daydream through garden catalogs and websites, totaling up a hefty bill, but what about cleaning out the seed box? Mine has seeds that date back to the first Obama administration. Science tells us that some seeds remain viable (able to germinate) for less than one year, while others can retain life for centuries. Part of this relates to how the seeds were stored—factors such as temperature and moisture play a part here—but each species also has an inherent longevity. Kew Gardens, one of England’s top botanical research institutions, has grown a healthy plant of Leucospermum from a seed over 200 years old, found in a Dutch merchant’s wallet. Typical garden seeds, however, are usually not so hardy.
According to the Oregon State University, sweet corn seed lasts one year, pole and bush beans two years, and tomatoes three years. These are estimates based on no special care given to the seeds. Life can be extended if the seeds are placed in a sealed jar containing a desiccant material (such as dry rice or powdered milk), which is then stored in a cool basement or refrigerator. Fifty degrees at fifty percent humidity is the goal. It really isn’t too much to ask, but you can be sure the plants (just like babies and dogs) will become more demanding once they germinate.
If throwing out seed pains you, a viability test may be in order, assuming you have a few seeds to spare. Take 10 seeds (or even better, 20) and place them, evenly spaced, on a damp paper towel. Roll the towel up, place it in a sealed plastic bag and keep it in a warm place, such as the kitchen counter. Light isn’t a concern for most species, but the temperature should be in the 70s. After two days, open up the package and check to see how many seeds germinated; a viable seed will produce either a root first, or a root and a shoot at the same time. Keep checking until day seven. Your number germinated will give you the percentage of total viability. Not very high tech, but it could save some cash if you find the seed remains garden-worthy. If you handle these little creatures carefully, and have the indoor means, you could even pot up the sprout-lets in anticipation of spring.
Although mentioning government action is a call to arms today, I am happy that there is something called the Federal Seed Act. Among other things, this law says that seed must be marked with the packaging date. Checking for this date on any seed you pick up in a garden center or receive through the mail helps in a small but important way to have a successful garden.
To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email