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Tips for saving garden seeds

Home gardeners tend to be a frugal bunch. Many of us save leftover seed from one year to the next and hope for the best.

But how can we tell how long to save the seed? That depends on what kind of seeds they are, and under what conditions they've been stored. Most garden seeds, if stored properly, will remain viable for three to five years.

There are a few exceptions to that rule of thumb: Sweet corn, leeks, onions, parsnips and spinach usually are good for only one or two years, no matter how they are stored. On the other hand, seeds of the cabbage family often last more than five years.

Keep in mind that to sprout, seeds need moisture, warmth and oxygen. Therefore, to keep seeds in good condition over the winter, we want be sure they don't get any of those. If you have saved your own seeds from your garden, it is critical that they are completely dry before storing, as dampness deteriorates seeds rapidly.

To keep moisture from damaging purchased seeds, store them in a tightly closed container. I like to use a glass jar with a tight lid. In the jar, along with the seeds, put some rice in the bottom to help absorb any moisture. Another thing that works well is to make a little packet from dry milk and a Kleenex and secure it with a rubber band. Moisture-absorbing packets of silica gel can be used, too.

Store your jars of seed packets in a dry, cool, dark place, such as a coat closet. Do not put them in the refrigerator or freezer, as moisture will form on the surface when you open the jar next spring.

If you want to test your seeds to find out whether they're still viable, here's how to do it. Randomly select 10 to 100 seeds of the variety you want to check. Using a pencil, note on a slip of paper what seeds you are testing. Dampen a paper towel, spread the selected seeds on the towel, and roll up the seeds and slip of paper together, making sure the towel is thoroughly dampened, but not dripping wet. Now seal it in a polyethylene bag, and put it in a warm area, about 70 degrees. The top of your refrigerator or water heater is often a good place.

Check frequently to be sure the paper towel remains damp. Some seeds, such as radish, will germinate in as little as three days, while others may take a week or more. Once the seeds have sprouted, it's time to make your count.

Divide the number of seeds that germinated by the number you put in the paper towel. For example, if you tested 20 seeds and 18 germinated, the rate of viability is 90 percent.

This information will help you decide whether the seed is worth keeping or how thickly you will need to plant in order to get a good crop. With peas, by the way, you can go ahead and plant the sprouted seeds. However, many seeds are so small that it's hard to plant them without breaking off the sprout. If that happens, the seed will not produce another sprout.

With good storage, the germination rate of your seeds should be high, and you won't be intimidated by that "packed for" date on your seed packets.

Coming Up: Master Gardener Mary Foster will discuss how to plan and start a community garden. Her class will meet from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road in Central Point. Cost is $5; call 541-776-7371 for information.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.