Organizing Stored Seeds (Plus, What To Do With Old Seeds!)

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Seed packets

As a housekeeper, I am far from gifted. I can stay on top of the necessary things – dishes, laundry, and the bathroom sink – but jumbled drawers and other small pockets of chaos take on a life of their own. A prime example is the bin where I store my garden seeds. I put off its annual cleanout because it feels like housework, but the job comes with a big reward: getting to order new seeds! To know what you need, you must first know what you have.

Before and after order was restored in Barbara’s seed storage bin

Organizing Stored Seeds

As detailed in my 2011 article, Seed Storage Made Simple, I use a plastic bin kept in a cool, dark room to store my seeds. In many homes, under the bed in the coolest bedroom would be a comparable spot. I also use desiccant packets from shoes and other goods to maintain constant low humidity, because swings in humidity are the main enemy of stored seeds. Two commenters to that article mentioned using pill bottles and bead sorting trays for seeds, wonderful ideas that inspired a reuse for my empty mint containers.

Window envelopes keep stored seeds visible

Another innovation I’ve made in recent years is to package my homegrown saved seeds in window envelopes gleaned from junk mail. I know at a glance how much seed I have without opening the envelope, and whether I have enough to share with the local seed bank, which provides its own envelopes.

I sort my seeds by plant type, with these general groups: cabbage family, cooking greens, flowers, herbs, onions, roots, salad greens, and tomatoes/peppers. For years each group was in its own messy plastic bag, but this year I switched to paper lunch bags because they are easier to label.

Some gardeners prefer to organize their seeds by planting date, which can certainly work. I suppose I use a hybrid system, because during the growing season, I keep a bowl of seed packets appropriate for immediate planting in the kitchen, and change up the selection every few weeks. Disorder sets in quickly in the seed storage bin, but the garden keeps getting planted anyway.

Seeds donated to seed banks need accurate information about the variety

Uses For Old Vegetable Seeds

I may not have much money, but I am rich in seeds, especially old vegetable seeds. This year I found many seeds in my collection more than 3 years old, which is not good unless the seeds are cucurbits or certain cabbage family crops, which often stay good for 5 years, as shown in the table below.

When to Discard Commonly Grown Crops
After 5 years Cucumber, melon, radish, collards, annual flowers
After 4 years Eggplant, tomato, squash
After 3 years Beans, peas, cabbage family crops, carrot family crops
After 2 years Leek, mesclun, sweet corn
After 1 years Onion, lettuce
Young microgreens grown from organic corn or popcorn seeds taste like sweet corn

After going through my seeds packet by packet, I amassed a small mountain of seeds so old they could not be trusted to make a good crop. In a second sort, I plucked out seeds of some organic seeds that are edible. Broccoli and radish seeds make great sprouts, and corn grows good microgreens. When you sow old seeds in the garden, you can waste two weeks waiting for a failed planting, but old seeds that punk out in a sprouting jar are no big deal.

As the payoff for these housekeeping tasks, I get to shop for seeds I really need! Armed with my list of most-wanted seeds, I can transform a wretched winter day by spending time studying new-to-me varieties of carrots, squash or basil. It's a seductive way to start the new season.

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Show Comments


"Barbara, Thank-you again for sharing your innovations as helpful "how-to's." I always learn something! A use for junk mail and expired seeds, plus growing corn in a coffee cup! It is lovely in January to work with seeds, get some sprouting, and dream about future plants. :-)"
Chris S on Saturday 15 January 2022
"I love sorting my seeds and ordering new ones. I do this every year on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas), my favourite day of the holiday season. I hang onto my seeds quite a bit longer than you, Barbara. I have some seeds that are over twenty years old and still going strong. Even if germination drops off a bit, I just plant more seeds to make sure that I'll have enough for my garden once the good ones sprout. I store my seeds in ziploc bags in the door of my refrigerator. It's cool, dry, and dark in there, and most of my seeds last a very long time."
Nicholas Richter on Saturday 22 January 2022
"As beekeepers, we invariably amass a large number of seeds from folks who want to help us "save the bees". We often have NO idea what these things are, or how old they may be. Throwing out such orphan packages seems wasteful. Every spring go out back to an unfenced field and scatter them in a recently cleaned and tilled area, lightly cover them, and then let Mother Nature do its work. And every year, Presto! whatever germinates provides a small landscape of volunteer flowers and fruiting vegetables that provide nectar and pollen for our hives. We leave the place untended, but clean up in the fall to discourage our local bears and other wildlife often pace around our fenced vegetable and fruit tree garden."
Jeff Lee on Saturday 22 January 2022
"Jeff, that's a great use of old seeds. Everybody wins!"
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 31 January 2022
"I have tons of old gardening seeds, dating back to 2020 or earlier. I want to just scatter them around in the garden, in no particular order to see if any will germinate. Is this an ok way to rid me of so many unused garden seeds?"
Rosie l Cooper-Willis on Saturday 18 March 2023

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