CHESTER S. GALLE
Special to the OBSERVER
A few years ago, I was given some old Burpee seed packets. The date on all the packets was 1953, which is three years before I graduated from Hellertown High School. Even though I will not plant these seeds, I still value them, so much so that I built a special frame to display them. Then, last year, I was given a 1962 Burpee seed catalog. I thought it would be interesting to compare the prices of the 1953 seed packets with their prices in 1962 and 2013.
The cost of seeds is growing much faster than the rate of inflation. The cost of beets, sweet peas and Black Simpson lettuce in 2013 cost 78 times what they cost in 1953 and hollyhocks and poppies cost 39 to 59 times the 1953 cost (depending upon variety). Seeds have become very expensive. Last year, I bought four cucumber seeds for $4.00. Fortunately, all four seeds did germinate, and I got a good crop of lunch box cucumbers.
As I thought about the current cost of seeds and how valuable they are, I decided it would be a good idea to write an article to help gardeners know whether or not they can use seeds from previous years. Here is a system I use to determine if seeds are still worth planting.
I take a zip-lock sandwich bag, cut a piece of paper towel to fit inside the bag, and dampen the towel. I then put 10 seeds from a packet on the damp toweling and insert it into the sandwich bag. I close the bag and label the contents; for example, "2010 Celebrity Tomato test, 2/4/13." I put the test bag in a 65-75 degree area and watch for growth. Some seeds will germinate in three or four days; others will take 15 days or more.
The technical term for defining whether or not seeds will grow is "seed viability." Testing seeds is a fun thing to do, and you can involve children in this project, too. You will find that many old seeds are still alive. I also was able to germinate tomato seeds left in my garden over winter. They were still viable.
If you test Cos lettuce seed and it germinates, plant it in a 5" to 6" pot, put it on a window sill, and you can have fresh lettuce for your table. Cos lettuce has an upright growth pattern and the outside leaves can be removed easily. Cos also does very well outdoors in pots during the main growing season. The pot can be kept near the house so, at lunch time, your lettuce is readily available. You can, of course, follow this same procedure with other lettuce varieties.
How you store seeds is important in preserving their viability. I put mine in a snap-lock container which I store in a cool, dark place. If you have silica gel packets from pill bottles, you can add them to your container. You want to keep your seeds cool, dry and dark. Most seeds will stay viable from four to five years, and some will last as long as eight years. If stored properly, they may last even longer.
Some years ago, I remember listening to a radio program that talked about plants that were grown from seeds that were found in an ancient tomb. A Wikipedia search for "oldest viable seed" turned up the following:
The oldest carbon-14-dated seed that has grown into a viable plant was a Judean date palm seed about 2,000 years old, recovered from excavations at Herod the Great's palace on Masada in Israel. It was germinated in 2005.
However, since you now know how to test your seeds, you don't really need to know how long they will last. Let's say you test 5- to 6-year-old lettuce seed and you have five of ten seeds germinate. This tells you that when you put your seeds in the garden you will need to put in twice as many seeds as you normally would.
So, if you are an avid gardener, you can start your gardening in February by testing your seed supply. When the seeds germinate, take a magnifier and marvel at how the roots grow. They will, in fact, grow right into the paper toweling. If you want to plant some of these seeds, just cut the paper towel into squares and plant each square in a pot, about one-quarter inch deep, and soon you will have plants for your window sill.
Think Spring! You now know a good way to pass the time during the cold month of February. You can test all of your old seeds, plant the ones that germinate, and watch them grow!
Chester S. Galle, Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener