New Seeds Needed?

    “Ring out the old, ring in the new.” But not all the “old,” when it comes to seeds for this year’s garden. I’m flipping through my plastic shoeboxes (I think that’s what the boxes are meant for) of vegetable and flower seeds, assessing what old seeds are worth keeping and what new seeds I need to order.
    Seeds are living, albeit in a dormant state, and, as such, have a limited lifespan. The longevity of any seed depends, first of all on the kind of seed, its genetics. Most seed packets come dated; if not, I write the date received on the packet.
    Few seeds have as short a viability as parsnips. (No matter to me; I don’t grow them.) More astounding is the longevity of some seeds, especially the current record-holder for longevity, Silene stenophylla seed, possibly 32,000 years old, found buried in a squirrel burrow in the Siberian tundra. At the other end of the spectrum are seeds that remain viable for even less time than parsnip. The record at that end is probably held by seeds in the family Tillandsioideae, related to pineapple, with a viability of 4-6 weeks. Swamp maple, Acer saccharinum, seeds retain their capacity to germinate for only about a week.
    It’s not worth the risk to sow parsnip, spinach, or salsify seeds after they are more than one year old. Two years of sowings can be expected from packets of carrot, onion, okra, pepper, and sweet corn seed; three years from peas and beans, radishes, celery, and beets; and four or five years from cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, radish, cucumbers, beet, endive, melons, eggplant, tomato, and lettuce.
    Among flower seeds, the shortest-lived are delphiniums, aster, candytuft, and phlox. Packets of alyssum, Shasta daisy, calendula, sweet peas, poppies, and marigold can be re-used for two or three years before their seeds get too old.

Life Extension, for Seeds

    As with humans, genetics and lifestyle determine actual longevity, lifestyle, in the case of seeds, being storage conditions. So although onion seeds remain potentially viable for 2 years, I replace the year old, dog-eared seed packets in shoeboxes in my garage with new packets each year.Bicycle vacuum pump
    Conditions that slow biological and chemical reactions also slow aging of seeds, i.e. low temperature, low humidity, and low oxygen. All winter, my seeds find their low temperature and low humidity storage in my garage. Good for seeds. But come summer, my garage becomes warm and humid. Bad for seeds.
    If my seed boxes could be kept well sealed, I could eke more sowings from a packet of seeds by lowering the humidity with a packet of silica desiccant.
    Reducing oxygen levels has generally not been practical . . . until I came across plans for converting a bicycle pump into a vacuum pump ($20-by-convert/). Going forward, my plan is to stuff some packets of seed into large-mouthed mason jars, then evacuate them with the reversed bicycle pump plugged into a “FoodSaver Wide-Mouth Jar Sealer.” I’d like to figure out some box I could make, modify, or buy in which I could more conveniently put my seeds, and then evacuate. Any suggestions?
    I’ve already tried this on a number of mason jars of dried tomatoes, dried shiitakes, nuts, and beans. The vacuum is not very strong (0.74 atmospheres), but sucking out air also sucks out moisture. Some testing will determine just how it affects seed longevity.

Test It

    So I don’t really know how viable my seeds are. One option is to order all new seeds each year. That could be very expensive. Another option is to guesstimate my seeds’ viabilities, taking into account their inherent longevity and storage conditions. That’s my approach, seasoned with yet another option: testing the viability of some of my seeds.

Testing seed germination

   I test viability by counting out 10 to 20 seeds from each packet to be tested, and spreading the seeds between two moist rounds of filter paper on a plate. Enclosing the plate in a plastic bag to hold in moisture, and putting the bagged plate somewhere warm, preferably around 75 degrees, provides just about perfect conditions for germination. (Alternatively, place seeds on a damp paper towel, roll it up, bag it, and put it somewhere warm.)
    After one to two weeks, germination occurs — if it is going to. Peeling apart the filter papers (or unrolling the paper towels) lets me count the number of seeds with little white root “tails”.
    Seeds with low or no percentage germination got tossed into the compost pile. If the germination percentage isn’t too low, I’ll use the seeds and adjust the sowing rate accordingly.

A Freebie

A book giveaway, a copy of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Reply to this post telling us, if you grow vegetables, how you maintain soil fertility year after year, and how it’s working, or not, for you. Let us know what state you are in (as in NY, OH, CA, etc., rather than happiness, wistfulness, etc.). I’ll choose a winner randomly from all replies received by January 22nd.

29 replies
  1. Mary Baker
    Mary Baker says:

    I try to maintain soil fertility by frequent additions of mulch. I compost everything out of my kitchen and make off with a bag of shredded paper from my work once a month, but the main soil supplement is free wood chips from the city mulch site. I get ten or twelve pickup bed loads of the stuff a year. Two wheelbarrow loads go to each fruit tree, I put 6″ of it on all my raised beds, and the rest the chickens scatter on their own.

    I’m in Oklahoma.

  2. DGGreen
    DGGreen says:

    The vacuum is not very strong (0.74 atmospheres)

    How are you testing to determine the atmospheres? How many atmospheres would you need to consider the vacuum to be strong?

    • Lee Reich
      Lee Reich says:

      .74 atm is about the same as a good vacuum cleaner. I saw a number somewhere on the web about what is “strong”, etc., but can’t remember where. Anyone else know the answer.

  3. Shelly N
    Shelly N says:

    I started a large vegetable garden in northern Indiana 2 years ago. The fertility isn’t where I would like it to be yet, but I’m working on it. I’ve been adding truckloads of aged manure, compost from garden and kitchen scraps and last summer I started mulching heavily with grass clippings, leaves and straw. I’ve been reading up on adding other nutrients and minerals and hope to get started with that in the spring. Fertility is improving but it takes a lot of material to cover such a large space! Weedless Gardening was a big inspiration in the changes I made last summer.

  4. Stacy
    Stacy says:

    Gardening is a passion for many people and I must add my name to the list. I live on a small parcel of land with a large walnut tree. I began with a small raised bed vegetable garden, until my husband suggested I begin a garden in my mother in laws lot across the road. Awesome idea, but this is November and I had visions of beginning in the spring with a no till approach. Many sleepless nights and research gave me the idea of where to gather all the organic materials I would need for my 25’x25′ plot. Weekly trips to the local coffee house gave me 700 gallons of grounds, a horse loving friend gave me 14 bales of spoiled hay and the local city had all the chipped branches and compost I desired. So on a cold day in January in Wisconsin I layered the coffee grounds and hay. Then as soon as it thawed I added 4 inches of compost, 6 inches of chipped branches and a healthy topping of aged chicken manure and began all my seedlings. Of course I worried about available nitrogen and minerals but this was an experiment so I forged ahead. My first year had triumphs and disappointments but 4 years into it I continue to add one inch of compost every year and almost never have to weed and get by with minimum water. My plants are the envy of the neighborhood and I’m as addicted as ever!! I am so grateful for all the advise I’ve read in blogs like yours. I would not have had this wonderful experience without the years of education found here!

  5. Steve Nothwehr
    Steve Nothwehr says:

    Re. soil fertility for veggies – I compost nearly all biomass on my property (leaves, what’s left of last years vegetable plants, grass clippings, scraps from our kitchen, etc) and supplement with leaves and grass clippings from the neighbors and coffee grounds from a local Starbuck’s. I spread aged compost over the beds in the Fall or Spring. I do not work it into the soil very much because disturbing the soil could cause problems. I rely on worms to do their job of mixing everything up. During the growing season I mulch the beds with shredded leaves or straw and this also degrades eventually and become organic matter for the soil. Finally, I rotate legumes with other crops so that the nitrogen fixating legumes enrich the soil for the next crop.

    • Steve Nothwehr
      Steve Nothwehr says:

      I forgot to mention that very occassionally I spread a bit of ash from my fireplace as well. My approach is working very well; however, at some point I should probably get a test to figure out what else could be done to improve the soil.

  6. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    I’m from TN. I’ve been growing vegetables for going on 7 years. I’ve done many things to keep soil fertility. My land was fertile to begin with. 1st year I added con posted cow manure. 2nd year my composted yard and kitchen scraps. 3rd year biodynamic compost with cow manure. 4th year my compost. 5th – mushroom compost. 6th – I added shredded leaves to my beds this winter. I’ve been gardening with biodynamic practices every year. My soil looks yummy and my vegetables are healthy.

  7. Tom
    Tom says:


    I currently buy bagged compost (coast of Maine) to make seed starting mix, along with big box store peat moss (which has too many sticks and dust for my taste), perlite. In seed starting mix I add blood meal, green sand, and calphos using Eliot Coleman instructions. I’d be curious to test leaving out the phos because I don’t know why seedlings need phos.

    I started making leaves and coffee ground compost using Mike McGrath instruction s but over a year and it’s still not ready. I collected 25 more bags of leaves this year which are composting in their paper bags touching the weed filled grass in the back. If the bags aren’t touching the ground the bugs don’t get to the leaves to break them down.

    I started very selectively composting some veggie scraps in a small outside pile.

    I previously had indoor red wigglers but killed them all and am making a new outdoor wood bin for them but am stuck at the wood glue and oil steps. I was going to try beeswax and linseed oil but am concerned about pesticides in beeswax and linseed oil from large companies has a disclaimer on the cam saying known to cause cancer by state of California. I contacted the company and they said they put it on products because they trust the supply chain to be carcinogen free.

    I am curious if getting a pig would help compost cooked meat leftovers, spoiled milk, and grease leftovers as well as pasture.

    Currently I am new to the game and have spend money to get finished stuff instead of the free stiffness.

    Currently renting a house on 1/8 acre in the city with terrible soil and terrible soil in my box at community garden.

    Potted pepper plants trying to keep alive year round

    Potted meyon lemon tree and a cutting of it in pots

    Strawberries in pots

    4 half wine barrels for tomatoes

    Raspberry in wine barrel (may die)
    Blackberry in wine barrel (may die)

    Digging up first raised bed for garden season #3

    I already have the book and pruning book but would give it to another community gardener.

    • Lee Reich
      Lee Reich says:

      It all sounds a bit too complicated, but it also works. As far as the pig, you can compost meat and spoiled milk. People suggest against it only because it can attract scavengers.

  8. Laura
    Laura says:

    I have been adding a layer of compost every year, but last year my husband used a soil test kit and added a few other things… and I had really good results. I’m in NC and have only been gardening for a few years.

  9. Stephanie Hartwick
    Stephanie Hartwick says:

    Here are the ways I maintain fertility in my vege garden.
    I have spent the last 15 years living between Ontario and New Zealand,spending 6 months in each place- chasing the sun, so have tried all these techniques in the one place or the other. The gardens have remained fertile and productive over the years and it is rare that I feel I have to resort to buying in outside compost.
    1) permanent compost piles that all the debris from the gardens go into. It gets spread around each spring. They aren’t created with much planning- just throw in stuff as it becomes available.
    2)worm farms. The worm castings go into the garden regularly and the liquid that drains from it is used as an instant boost for anything that needs a boost. My worm farm is small and is fed only with kitchen scraps. I work a hand full of castings under each plant at planting time.
    3)lawn clippings get tucked around and in between established plants as a mulch.I have large lawns so have lots of lawn clippings.
    4)Green manures. In Ontario they grow from late fall til snow fall. In NZ they grow all winter. The green manures inhibit the weeds as well as fertilize when the crop is dug in in the spring.
    5)I have raised vege beds and the paths are covered in coarse sawdust/chips that I gather from a friends wood milling biz. Every few years the old wood chips in the pathways have started to decompose and I scrape them up from the paths and put them on the garden beds. The paths then get a fresh layer of wood chips on them.
    6)When the 3 permanent compost bins I have are full( which usually happens each fall) I create temporary compost piles on the empty garden beds. The raised beds are 8′ x 4′ and I simply run some chicken wire around the perimeter of the beds, staking the corners and long edges with 4′ lengths of rebar. In the spring it is usually easy enough to plant through the mostly broken down compost that is left.
    I am looking forward to getting some new ideas from some of your other readers.

  10. Lisa B
    Lisa B says:

    Compost, compost, compost both bought and homemade is how I’ve been able to have a productive garden year after year. I also rotate the crops which helps with lots of other aspects of the garden. Have a happy, healthy and productive garden. Thanks for your blog. I love it.

  11. Kirsten
    Kirsten says:

    This year will be my third year with a community garden plot (luckily the kind you get to keep year to year). I am hoping to block out the more of the persistent weeds this year with your newspaper and compost technique. I’ve been spreading compost the past years, but probably not in enough quantity, as I think we can do better in parts, so I think I’ll have to find a secondary source of compost (currently using our backyard pile which is mostly veg food scraps). We do have a big pile of leaf mulch though, so hoping this will be useful as well. Thanks for your helpful blog and books.

  12. Valerie Gwara
    Valerie Gwara says:

    I grow veggies in containers in my driveway. It’s the only place with enough sun other than the flower borders. Each year I mix lots of compost in with the potting mix (which I generally purchase – sigh)
    It works pretty well, I get carrots, wax beans, mini melons, some beets (too hot on the driveway – looking for another spot.) Mini tomato,
    Central CT zone 6.5

  13. Jim Robinson
    Jim Robinson says:

    Hey Lee, I’m a big fan and have been gardening for about a five years now. I live and grow my vegetables in Langhorne, PA and have been very successful over the past few years. To maintain soil fertility I have two yards of mushroom compost delivered, then spread that one inch think across my beds and around the fruit trees. I also make my own compost by collecting the fall leaves with my lawnmower and leaving them in a large pile in the backyard, to which I will add all our food waste and chicken poo. This year I had a local landscaper dump 10 yards of shredded leaves in my yard which I hauled to the back. I normally use my homemade compost for the fall garden. This year I hope to have enough left to use instead of having to buy the mushroom compost. My garden is in the suburbs and I feel like I’m already pushing the limits to how many piles of yard waste one can reasonably have.

  14. Eric
    Eric says:

    Hi Lee,
    I also live in NY, but over in Dutchess county. I grew all kinds of vegetables last year for the first time. It was fairly successful and I learned alot so hopefully this next year will be even more successful. These are some great tips for seed saving which I have also started doing. I also started composting this year and plan to use that for my garden soil this spring. I love your video and philosophy on composting and have been trying to follow your lead. Hopefully it works out and keeps my vegetables growing.

  15. Selena Nicolas
    Selena Nicolas says:

    I grow vegetables, fruits, herbs… and of course some flowers. I have had my garden for about 5 years now – and when i got it the soil was practically sand. After a heavy rain the soil needed only about an hour of wind and sun before it was dry again…. I have been adding as much compost as possible and also using ‘jauch’ which is nettle tea that is allowed to brew (ferment) for a couple days to a week. It is slow going but the soil fertility is definitely improving as is the ability to hold water. I live in Germany, but if i were lucky enough to win the book it would be a present for my parents who live in WA (who love your ‘Uncommon Fruits’ book).

  16. gm
    gm says:

    I apply compost yearly to the surface of no-till beds + whenever I get the opportunity throughout the year. This is mostly locally made (purchased) compost, some homeade with the help of kitchen scraps, garden waste, arborist wood chips, and poultry manure. I try to keep roots in the ground continuously and cover crops like vetch, oats, rye, peas are used wherever I am not growing for winter. Wood chips are used on all the pathways and these break down for me (although very slowly here in NM)

  17. Mark T.
    Mark T. says:

    I love reading your blog, it has given me some great ideas. I grow vegetables in Illinois but I just moved last summer so I can’t yet state how well my soil fertility plan is working. I intend to double dig my beds this spring and from then on will use your method of spreading compost on the soil surface every year. It seems like it should work well as long as I can generate enough compost to keep all the plants happy.

  18. Marlin
    Marlin says:


    Growing organic vegetables in the spring and summer can be a real challenge, but maintaining the soil is the hardest task year after year. Living in Virginia, we are sometimes unsure on which season it is or when the frost really hits it peak. But the soil, above all must be always in balance before any short or long tern gardening project can begin.

    By accident, I noticed that earthworms were digging and burrowing though old tree stumps and wood remaining on the ground. I began to incorporate more and more items such as wood chips and leaves to help maintain the soil fertility and to keep water erosion at a minimum.

    Over time I noticed that my cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce were doing great thanks to the added leaves and wood chips. There may be some debate as to whether adding leaves is a good idea, but I gave it a try. Over the past few years finding and buying rock dust or Azomite was becoming too costly. After reading and watching a few videos on the web, they stated that leaves will produce the same effect as rock dust.

    All in all, I noticed better crops from the garden and a overall better yield. Those Jerusalem Artichokes now taste better and more crisp than ever.

  19. bavaria
    bavaria says:

    Soil fertility is maintained with a few easy access items in S.E. Alaska. Fish scraps are buried beside perennials such as rhubarb, blueberries, raspberries, sour cherry, asparagus, and apple. Also layered into the compost pile. Everything receives a layer of seaweed in the fall and a dusting of woodash is given throughout the winter as we clean the woodstove occasionally. Just toss it on the snow on the beds, it gets down to the soil eventually. In the spring after planting out starts, everything gets a layer of local woodchips for weed suppression and eventually soil looseness as it breaks down into soil.

  20. Ken Kuter
    Ken Kuter says:

    I grow vegetables at home and maintain soil fertility with my own compost and additions of oak leaves from my forest, shredded leaves/ woodchips from the local road crew. My own compost consists of leaves (primarily oak), grass clippings, spent plants, green herbs (stinging nettle, yarrow, horsetail, burdock, dandelion, garlic mustard, skunk cabbage) green weeds, native soil, spent potting soil, kitchen scraps and occasionally I get inputs of coffee grounds and millfoil from the pond at my work. In late summer I will skim the the dried vernal pools of black gold (blackened oak leaf mold/muck). When I can find it I’ll place bear poop on the pile. My compost has not attracted any bears, just a nosy labrador retriever. Beside rainwater and well water, I will water the compost with swamp water from one of two swamps on the property with the intention to increase the biological diversity of the pile. It has become clear that the perennials would benefit from more mulch as well as making compost that is a bit more fungally active. I plan on maintaining my current composts for my vegetable garden and adding in a compost pile that has more bark/woodchips as its carbon component to be added to the perennial landscape.

  21. Liz Casey
    Liz Casey says:

    As a child, some sixty plus years ago, I learned about building soil fertility from my mother, who was a devotee of Ruth Stout and Rachel Carson. I still garden this way and put everything I can find into my compost bins and on my gardens. I gather seaweed from the edges of the bay, pick up bags of leaves from the roadside, happily take horse manure off a friend’s hands, help myself to the town’s free wood chip pile, compost all kitchen scraps and bring home coffee grounds from Starbucks. Seaweed (in our case eel grass) is my favorite mulch. It looks neat and never contributes weed seeds. The fertility it offers is amazing and it sure makes for great soil. In the last house I lived in, after 20 plus years of this practice, I could literally plant flowering bulbs with my bare hands; no trowel needed! Where I live now, we have 80 acres of woods behind us so the leaf haul on our property in autumn is nothing short of awesome. I keep leaves in cylinders I’ve made from turkey wire and dog clips. After a year, or two or three, I use the leaf mold as mulch everywhere. Keeping the leaf cylinders close to the compost bins means I always have carbons/browns handy to add to my nitrogen/greens from kitchen scraps. Where I live now requires me to do my vegetable gardening in containers on the back deck. It’s the only spot with reliable sun and the deer don’t tend to come up there. When I first moved in, I used the usual recommended container mixes of compost, perlite, vermiculite, peat moss, etc. However, I wasn’t happy with the amount of plastic bags I was adding to the waste stream and decided to fill my containers with finished compost and a little sand from the beach added for drainage. I’ve had fantastic results with this approach but am now dealing with the problem of scrambling to have enough finished compost each year for the dozens of pots I use to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beets, beans, zucchini, potatoes, lettuces, chard, spinach, herbs, etc. etc. (Did I mention I’m a garden addict?) This summer I plan to start making compost tea to stretch my compost even further. There may be a worm bin in my future, as well. The one good thing I’ll say about container gardening is that it’s sure easy on aging knees! I learn a lot about container gardening from urban gardening blogs and books. I do plan to start tucking blueberries, strawberries, currants and Nanking cherries into other parts of the property and, of course, that’s going to challenge my abilities to keep the deer, birds and other lovelies around here from eating everything I grow. I love, love, love your blog, your knowledge, your writing style, and everything you so generously share. By the way, I do my growing on Long Island, NY.

  22. J
    J says:

    I just read your post on seed viability,TO SAVE OR NOT TO SAVE, & A FREE BOOK!
    It got me thinking. I thought about the FoodSaver system. SO I looked at their website. Have you used a FoodSaver unit to seal seeds for storage? I saw a new handheld Vacuum Sealing System on their website for their Zipper Bag, and FoodSaver® Deli Containers.
    What do you think?

    • Lee Reich
      Lee Reich says:

      It would probably work very well, especially if the seeds were also kept cool. I just don’t want another device. Also don’t want to keep using new plastic every time I retrieve seeds and then pack them away.


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