Cleaning up for winter, every gardener finds seeds left over from the past gardening year. Should we recycle old seeds or toss them out and start afresh?
Buying new is tempting but expensive.
“Many seeds are pretty pricey,” says Rosie Lerner of Purdue University Extension, “so saving even a few seeds can make a big impact on next year's gardening budget.”
Besides, the Internet has been buzzing lately with a story that has many gardeners wondering if fresh seeds are really necessary.
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According to dozens of online reports, “Gete Okosomin” (meaning “cool old squash” in Anishinaabe, a Native American language), a huge, tasty and beautiful red-orange squash, has been successfully grown from 850-year-old seed. Archeologists supposedly discovered the seed on a reservation in Minnesota a couple of years ago, encased in a mud ball, a traditional storage method.
If an ancient heirloom can still sprout after eight centuries, why shouldn’t gardeners be able to recycle their old seeds, too?
As you might expect, the whole story – both about the ancient squash and what to do with old seed – is a bit more nuanced.
Practically speaking, December and winter in general is the traditional time to inventory and, in some cases, purge your seeds.
Given typical home gardener storage, in a shoebox or baggies somewhere in the house, vegetable and flower seeds should be good for about three years.
Some seeds, however, are notoriously short-lived, surviving only a year or two. These include onions, spinach, pepper and sweet corn, and such popular flowers as salvia, impatiens and marigolds. You might want to start fresh with these.
Other seeds seem to last and last, even in that neglected shoebox in the closet, and may be good for five years or more: Collards, cucumbers, lettuce, melons, radishes and zinnias.
Just about everything else falls in a mid-range, with beans, broccoli, carrots, peas, cosmos and hibiscus seed lasting an average of three years, and beets, cabbage, kale, squash and watermelon about four.
Seeds can survive much longer under carefully controlled conditions, with low moisture and cool temperatures. However, general patterns still hold true. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists at the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Colorado, after 60 years of storage under optimum conditions, “carrot, onion, and pepper are clearly less long-lived than okra or tomato.”
Germination (sprouting) is only half the picture. As seeds grow older, a percentage may sprout but grow less vigorously in the garden (a problem I’ve experience with spinach.) For any crop your family enjoys eating a lot of, you may want to buy fresh seed.
The true tale of the “cool old squash” has important lessons for practical seed keeping.
It turns out there was no mud ball and no archeological dig. Elder gardeners from the Miami Nation did share seeds for a traditional squash with David Wrone, a retired University of Wisconsin historian, and others in the mid-1990s. Over time, squash grew beautifully in different gardens, and the story evidently grew, too, spreading across the Internet like a “Gete Okosomin” vine, rambling and twisting through a Minnesota garden at midsummer.
The journalists at NiiJii Radio (http://niijiiradio.com) who broke the original story commendably issued a corrective update after further fact-checking. The seed was not 8 centuries old, but gardeners had been nurturing the variety and passing it along, even hand pollinating to insure purity, for perhaps thousands of years.
I agree with them that the actual history of this cool old squash actively growing in gardens for generations is far more informative and inspiring, than an account of seed sitting neglected and forgotten in a mud ball. It reminds us that best way to keep valuable varieties alive is for gardeners to grow them and share them – not hoard or forget them.
That still leaves the question of what to do with the seeds that are past their prime. It seems wrong to just throw them away. You can test germination (and I do) but that still leaves the question of vigor (my spinach taught me that lesson, too, this year.)
Something I do not recommend is donating old seed to community or school gardens. If you won’t grow it, why should others? If you want to donate, buy fresh seeds. That helps good seed companies and low-income gardeners both.
There is an appealing alternative to tossing them the compost pile, and it involves mud balls – real ones this time. Get some mud and compost, make apple-sized balls, and roll your old seeds into them. Viola! - a “seed grenade.” Carry them around on your back seat, and toss them into vacant lots. Who knows, maybe some tough seeds will sprout, and free food will grow in place of urban blight.
Don Boekelheide is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org