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February has just poked its tired little blanket-wrapped head around the corner, got spooked, and dumped 8 inches of Lake Michigan blizzard onto southeastern Wisconsin. This is not just accidental, this is kismet. February is, after all, a very romantic month, and cold snowy weather is just more reason to stay inside and snuggle by the fire. Not only is it Valentine’s Day, but February also marks the anniversary of CFO and my first date, and my birthday. Needless to say, a pretty great month for me, and a costly month for CFO. With all the love in the air, February is a great month to start planning for a spring (garden) family. If you are like me, you have been thumbing through seed catalogs since December, making lists, changing your mind, ordering new and different catalogs, wondering if there are other seeds out there you haven’t even considered…or maybe you have a significantly healthier relationship with your seed catalogs. Either way, February is a great time to take stock of last year’s seeds, and think about what worked, what didn’t, what you can use again, and what will need to be reordered.

Plants are not complex beings: they grow, hoard nutrients to flourish, until they sense the end is near and they put all their focus and effort into making seeds to ensure they leave something for their progeny. See that, plants are nothing more than aged parents with a solid end-of-life plan. In nature, these seeds have a rough life ahead of them: wind, cold, animals eating them, drought, etc. By the time they settle down and decide to start a family of their own, they are well-traveled little microcosms of nutrition. In nurture (not nature), we collect these seeds by hand, keep them dry and safe until we are ready for the subsequent bounty. Seeds have the best chances when they are sown the year after they are formed. After that, their viability will go down, some more than others.

I planted over 20 varieties of vegetables last year from seed, and most of those seeds are packed into a plastic box inside the night stand of my guest room (don’t ask). Being financially conscious and knowing that I probably only used at most 20% of those seeds, I don’t want to buy them all over again. The thing is, who I am I to say they won’t grow up to be famous? Or, I love them too much, to let them go. What is a love-struck seed obsessed girl to do? Well, she can totally test those slightly older seeds for virility. Unfortunately, there is no blue pill to help them go a little longer once they are past their prime.

To germinate most seeds, all you need is a little water. This reminds me of the little encapsulated bath sponges my sister and I would get as kids. During bath time, we would throw these little colored pills into the water, and poof! a magical sponge creature would emerge, like a dinosaur or a giraffe. The sponge was 10 times the size of the pill casing. Seeds are no different. You can poof! the seeds in a similar way.

Select what seeds you want to check. I picked Scarlet Nantes carrots and these Hollow Crown parsnips I got last summer from a $0.25 clearance bin.

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Carrots have very sporadic germination, and germination of parsnips rapidly decreases after the first year. For each seed you are testing take two paper towels together, label the variety near the top in pencil or indelible marker.

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Depending on how many seeds you have remaining, you want to pick a good number to check. This is a percentage game, so the more you use, the better the results. I have enough left, so I decided to use a test of 30 seeds each.

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Wet the paper towels and squeeze out as much water as you can so they are damp, but not soaking. Spread the seeds out so they are not near each other, making sure to keep the carrot seeds on the carrot paper towel, and parsnips on the parsnip paper towel. Roll up the paper towels with the seeds inside, and place into a plastic zipper bag. Press out any extra air, and seal.

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You will want to know the average time of germination for these seeds. For both carrot and parsnip, it could be anywhere from 5-25 days. Put the seed test bags somewhere safe. The water in the paper towels should provide enough water to saturate the seed hulls so they can germinate. You may want to check the paper towels every couple of days to make sure they are still damp. If they dry out, you will want to add a little more water.

After five days, I can check the seeds. Slowly unroll the paper towels and see if any magic has happened.

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Huh. I don’t remember using printed paper towels. Because all of that is mold. Check the seeds and pull out any that have sprouted and any that are moldy. The moldy seeds will look either black or fuzzy or both. Write down how many seeds for each have sprouts on them. They may try to stick to the paper towel. Just pull them off. Roll the towels back up, and put them back into the bags. Set aside, and check a few days later.

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Sprouted Scarlet Nantes carrots after 5 days.

Wowza! Look at those carrots. After the first 5 days, I had a 70% germination rate, and after 10 days, it’s over 90%. I don’t think I need to take this further. These carrots will work just fine.

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Sprouted Hollow Crown parsnips after 10 days.

As for those parsnips, I didn’t have anything after 5 days, and only 12 seeds that sprouted after 10 days. I can either let this go until 25 days, or judging by the mold growth, I can assume that going further will be futile.

So my old carrots are still going strong and don’t look like they will be slowing down anytime soon. Parsnips, however, are not aging with quite as much grace. A 40% germination rate, though, is not nearly as terrible as I expected. I will still try to use these parsnip seeds, but I may increase my plantings to 6 seeds per slot instead of my usual 3. The lower the germination rate, the more seeds should be sown to ensure that something will emerge.

How simple was that? No go forth and test every seed from last year.

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You have got to be kidding me.

I am! What is the point of all of this, when so many smart people have already done the work? If you tend to hold seeds past the expected lifespan or if you play fast and loose with storage conditions, it may be worth testing for germination so you can suck every ounce of life left in those guys. But you and your seeds will have a better relationship if you follow these simple guidelines for some of my favorite vegetables and herbs:

Plant Average Seed Longevity
Arugula 4
Beans, Pole and Bush 2-3
Beet 3-5
Bok Choi. Chinese Cabbage 3
Broccoli 3-5
Brussel Sprouts 3-5
Cabbage 3-5
Carrot 2-3
Cauliflower 3-5
Celery 2-3
Corn 1-2
Cucumber 3-5
Eggplant 3-5
Endive 5
Fennel 4
Kale 4
Lettuce 3-5
Parsnip 1
Peas 2-3
Pepper 2-3
Radish 4-5
Spinach 1-3
Squash (winter, summer, zucchini) 3-4
Swiss Chard 2-4
Tomato 3-4
Parsley 1-2
Flower, annual 1-3
Flower, pernnial 2-4
Melon 4-5

There you have it, seed germination practice to keep you and your plants happy, healthy, and growing in love for years, and years, to come.

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These carrots taste a little off.

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