Among gardening folk, my organizational skills are probably about average. What that means is that I know where all my tools are, even if they are stored in two sheds and the basement, and that I have all my vegetable seeds stowed more or less in one location.
I've noticed that some of the gardening equipment catalogs sell seed storage kits that consist of index boxes with little seed packet-sized ziplock bags, the better for creating an air-tight seed filing system.
If I know any vegetable gardeners who go in for this sort of thing, they aren't talking. I suspect that many of my fellow gardeners, being an independent lot anyway, would join me in saluting the common shoe box as the most practical seed-storage container ever drafted into service.
I raise this issue because I recently was asked for some advice about the shelf life of seeds. Besides, with the persistently wet weather we've had so far this spring, we have very little else in the way of gardening to talk about right now.
However, the subject isn't entirely off point precisely because the start of early-spring gardening has been delayed. Gardeners who usually plant cool-weather veggies in early March may decide to hang onto those seeds until next year.
This is also the time of year when we take stock of our seed supplies and buy more. The gardener who sought my counsel wondered whether leftover seeds from previous years would still be viable this year.
The answer is an equivocal maybe. That's where the shoebox comes in.
It's not so much what you store your seeds in as where you keep them. A dry and cool environment will maximize the storage life of your seeds, while heat and dampness will do them in. The basement is a bad place to keep your shoebox, as is the top of the refrigerator. Your seeds will fare best when protected from mold and conditions that send signals for sprouting.
However, remember that even sitting on the shelf, seeds are living, breathing beings. My hunch is that bagging up old seed envelopes in plastic may be harmful to their contents. Working from this air-circulation-is-good theory, I don't store seeds in anything but paper.
Even with optimal storage conditions, the life expectancy of seeds depends a lot on the seeds themselves. Parsnip seeds, for example, can't be relied on to last from one year to the next. Chayote squash seeds, if you can get them, are unreliable even through a single season.
After eating some pretty tasty chayote squash a few years ago, I vowed to myself and the cook who prepared it that I would grow enough for both of us. However, I couldn't find a single listing in my dozens of seed catalogs for chayote squash or a reference in any of my gardening books.
I took my search to the Internet, did searches on Southern gardening and eventually landed on the Web site of a Mississippi nursery. I e-mailed my query to the proprietor and got a friendly and detailed response. It turns out that chayote squash seeds aren't stocked by seed vendors because they don't keep for more than a few months; ergo, most people who grow chayote squash start their vines from cuttings.
On the other hand, rosemary seeds are widely available but have a germination rate listed as only about 20 percent. Most people who grow this herb began with store-bought plants or cuttings.
Seeds that do keep at least a couple of years include beans, most salad greens, cantaloupe, tomatoes and peppers -- although with the nightshades I do see a decline in the percentage of starts after the second year. Last year I got Rutgers tomato plants and California Wonder green peppers from 5-year-old seeds, but I double-seeded to account for any duds.
That same strategy should work for leftover sweet corn seed. Since you have to thin sweet corn anyway, overseed your rows to ensure a good stand of corn.
-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University.