Garden Planning 101: Seed Inventory

The first installment of the Garden Planning 101 series is a guide to doing a seed inventory.  I know, I know, it’s much more fun to dive head first into the new shiny catalogs and dream of all the new seeds we want to plant this year, but I promise it will only keep you from your seed catalogs for a moment (and you might even be able to turn some of your old seeds into new seeds!).

If you’ve been gardening at least one season, chances are you have a few (or maybe quite a few) extra or partial packets of seed.  As much as I try to buy only what I need for a given year, there is always that row that needed just half a packet more to finish off, something I couldn’t quite squeeze in, or a fall planting that never made it into the garden.  Not to mention all the lovely things that are marked down at the end of the season that find their way into my collection.  As time passes from planting one garden to planning the next, it’s actually kind of fun to rediscover the treasures in my seed stash.
I’m a fan of the “waste not, want not” philosophy, and a quick seed inventory is a good practice in that same spirit.  Chances are the seeds you have on hand right now will last many years, but in truth, they are never going to be better than they are right now, so why not make the most of them? Here’s a few simple tips on sorting through your stash:
  • Make a list:  It might seem like a no-brainer, but having a list to reference when you’re planning your garden or purchasing seed can be very helpful.  It can be as simple or detailed as you like, but the key is to keep your inventory close at hand as you continue to plan and determine what you need to obtain for your garden.  I find that keeping a simple spreadsheet is an easy way to keep track of my collection (and it’s easily updated from season to season).
  • Separate the corn from the chaff:   Every garden season has its standouts and its disappointments and not everything that is saved from year to year is a keeper, so weed out varieties that didn’t live up to your expectations or that you know you will not grow again (but don’t throw those seeds away!). It’s taken me a while to not feel guilty about it, but it’s okay to be discerning when it comes to which seeds stay in the collection and which seeds go.
  • Check the dates:  All seed packets will tell you what year the seed was packaged, but seeds are almost always viable for multiple years if they are stored under the proper conditions (think stable, cool, dark, and low humidity).  Use a seed viability chart to determine how long seeds typically remain viable, but keep in mind that these numbers usually refer to a certain average threshold germination rate (usually above 60%), and seed that has been properly stored can (and often will) still germinate well beyond the stated timeframe.
  • Test for germination: This is something you may or may not want to do–especially if you have a limited number of seeds in a packet–but if you are banking your entire tomato crop and canning yield on older seed, you might consider doing a germination test.  You can do a simple germination test with as few as 5 or as many as 10 or 20 seeds:  just place the seeds on a wet paper towel; carefully fold or roll the paper towel to cover the seeds; place the paper towel containing the seeds inside a plastic ziplock bag in a warm place (like the top of the fridge); and check daily to make sure that the paper towel remains moist and for signs of germination. If the germination rate is low, not all is lost; you’ll just want to make sure that you plant extras or seed more heavily to compensate for the reduced germination rate.
  • Count the beans: When you have partial packets of seed, open up each packet and count how many seeds are actually left in the packet (I like to mark this number on the outside of the packet, for quick reference).  Knowing exactly how much seed you have on hand will not only help you purchase additional seed accordingly, but will help you assess how much of the seed you can realistically use.  If you have 50 seeds of an heirloom tomato variety that you only grow one or two plants a year, use some of that surplus to obtain smaller quantities of other varieties you’d like to try.
  • Gift and trade: One gardener’s disappointment is another gardener’s treasure.  Remember how I told you not to throw away those seeds you’ll never grow again?  Let your gardener friends know what you have to offer and gift or swap seeds.  Online garden forums, like GardenWeb and Seed Savers Exchange, have seed swapping threads, where you can trade your extra seeds for someone else’s extra seeds.  You might even stumble upon a gardener who is willing to give away surplus seeds for no more than a self-addressed stamped envelope, just so they won’t go to waste.  Also, keep an eye out for notices of seed swap events hosted by local garden clubs and Master Gardener programs.  Just remember to let would-be traders know the source (commercial, past trade, or seed saved from your own garden) and age of the seed.
There you have it: a little time taking inventory and you’re one step closer to planning your garden!  And while we’re on the subject of taking inventory, now is a great time to inventory your seed starting supplies, your canning pantry, and (if you didn’t store them too far away) your other garden supplies like plant supports and ties as well.  Happy seed sorting!

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