Get ready for the new gardening year with a super simple system for storing and organizing seeds so you know what to buy. Planning and taking a few steps now will go along way to a successful garden year.
You can learn more about seeds and seed starting in the Seed Starting Guide.
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While there's not a lot to do in most winter gardens, one thing you can do is to plan your garden and start organizing your seeds so you know what to purchase for the new gardening year.
Before I share my simple seed storage option, let me answer the question about why it's a good idea to start seeds for both flower and vegetable gardens. I list the four main reasons you should use seeds here, but I also had an experience that illustrated for me again why starting plants from seed is so good.
A few years ago for a variety of reasons (#life) I didn't start one seed inside. I found myself having to shop at a number of nurseries and stores for seedlings and still couldn't find all the varieties I like to plant each year.
In the ten years that I had consistently started seeds of tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, and more I had forgotten what it was like to be at the whim of whoever decides what varieties to offer. I'd like to say that I discovered some cool new varieties, but mostly it was a summer of thinking, "I wish we had (broccoli, tomato, etc,), it was so much better."
So every year that I can, I plan, organize, and purchase seeds way in advance of the season so I can grow what I want, when I need to. Lesson learned.
Now that our little seed starting pep talk is done, I'll share how I keep and organize those seeds, plus a few favorite varieties I try to grow every year. (And be sure to read the seed starting guide for more information and links to how-to articles - it's simple and the feeling of growing your own is so fun.)
There are basically three steps to organize and record your seeds and seed needs for the coming season (you'll find a page in the free Garden Notebook Journal -mine is shown above- to help):
- Make a list of the seeds you have from the previous year(s).
- Next to that list, write down the seeds you need to buy, like "shell pea" or "1 roma tomato."
- Go through your favorite catalogs to find the specific varieties you want to try of the seeds you need and write the varietal names next to the "need to buy" column. Bonus: this is actually one of my favorite winter time activities!
Now you have two options: buy seeds from a store or the catalogs.
You can take your list to a store offering a sale on quality seeds (often Fred Meyer locally for me) in order to get each packet for $1-1.50 each. You'll save shipping costs as well, but you'll give up a lot in the way of variety. The stores just don't have the space to stock all the options.
My preference is to order from online catalogs. You get to choose from hundreds of options and when ordering from a quality company, can feel good about your seeds and where they come from. You can see the companies I order from consistently here - be sure to get on their mailing lists just for the information that's often included in the catalogs.
Simple Seed Storage System
How to Store Seeds Correctly
You do not need to purchase new vegetable or flower seeds every year (unless you use them all up of course), since most seeds remain viable for 2-5 years, depending on the seed. One of the ways you can help your leftover seeds last longer is to store them in the correct way.
Which is not throwing them in a garden tote or leaving the packets on a shelf in the garden shed (a-hem...learn from my mistakes). The heat, humidity, and cold will take their toll and the seeds might not even sprout for you in year two, let alone year three or four.
To keep my seeds in the best shape I developed an easy seed storage system that uses simple office and kitchen products that are easy to find, and may even be something you have in your house already.
Seed Storage Supplies:
- Lidded Portable File Box that holds hanging files in a dark color (you need to be able to keep out the light). I would suggest a larger file box like this so that you can hold all your seeds easily - even pelleted seeds that come in a container like you can see below.
- Hanging Files, preferably files with pockets on one side (apparently they don't sell folders with pockets anymore, though I do use them as you can see below, so I would suggest using tape and a cut-up manilla folder to create pockets on one side).
- Alphabet Labels for files (or skip buying labels and get these hanging files with built-in erasable tabs).
- Plastic sealable baggies, sandwich size. I've reused mine for years, but you can also get compostable baggies.
Set up your seed storage system:
- Attach alphabet labels to hanging file folders.
- Set the folders into the file box.
- Add the seed packets to each folder accordingly - beets, broccoli, and beans in the A-B folder, carrots and corn in the C-D folder, and so on.
- After the seed packets have been opened, place the packet in one of the zip top baggies to keep as much air from them as possible and place the baggie in the correct folder.
- I like to keep new packets in the folder's pockets, moving them to baggies after I've opened them.
- Once in the baggie, I keep all the same type seeds in one baggie - all the carrot varieties, all the beets, etc.
- But I will separate when it makes sense: lettuces are separated into baggies of Winter, Summer, Romain, Loose Leaf, and Butterhead. Tomatoes are separated into Hybrid, Heirloom, and Paste. Just do what makes sense to you. Use a black permanent marker to write on the baggie when separating into types like this.
- Keep a separate hanging file in the front of your box to hold unused baggies, plant tags (these are the simple tags I've found to work the best), bean inoculation packets, or other seed related things. The baggies I started this system with more than 10 years ago are still going strong!
The other thing that I like about this system for storing seeds, versus just having them in a shoe box type container, is that the baggies make it really easy to grab and carry the seeds you need out to the garden.
If it's time to plant carrots, for example, I just grab the baggie with carrots (I'll add any unopened packet if I have it) and take them all out with me. Then I know all the varieties I want to plant are available.
If I'm succession planting lettuce at 2-week intervals, I'll just keep the loose-leaf lettuce baggie in my garden tote until the planting window is done.
There's no rifling through packets or having multiple packets loose in my garden tote. This is a bonus, though, because the main this is that with this system I regularly have 4 and 5 year old seed sprout!
Favorite Seed Varieties
As long as we're talking about seeds, here are some of my favorites (you can see more of my tried and true vegetable varieties here) I like to grow:
Of course I grow a row of Emerite pole beans every year, but I like to compliment it with another variety. Fortex, a filet pole bean like Emerite, has great flavor and production, plus they're often 8-10 inches! They are stringless and stay tender for quite awhile on the vine.
I LOVE this bean - it's a great compliment to the timing of Emerite, so I now grow these two beans only each year.
When I've grown Chinese cabbage in the past they've been all ready at once and they are huge, so it was hard to use them before they went bad.
These are smaller heads that are somewhat heat tolerant (for a Chinese cabbage, that is) so I they are good for early spring and fall production. And while they also mature all at once, the smaller heads are a lot easier to use up. When I'm on the ball and plant these in succession over a month, the harvest is easier to manage.
Maestro produces well over a period of time and the pods are held somewhat away from the vines for picking. The peas are tender and each pod holds a good amount.
I grow these along with my favorite mini white Baby Boo Pumpkins every year. I LOVE these so much for decorating and after the first year I now make sure to save the seeds so I don't have to buy them (I keep them in an envelope in a baggie in the file box, just like purchased seeds).
Italian White Sunflower
I find a space for this, along with a classic yellow pollen-free sunflower (currently unavailable–try this instead), in the garden each year. I love the color and the multi-branching habit that is perfect for cutting. And it keeps producing flowers for months, unlike some other sunflowers.
I so love the airy beauty of cosmos and the white and pastel colors of this classic mix. This is the 4-5 foot tall variety and I have found they produce the longest, pumping out flowers long after the smaller varieties have died.
Finding Sensation cosmos in the nurseries is nearly impossible - it's almost always the shorter varieties, so this is one of the reasons to start your own from seeds for cottage cut flowers all summer long!
Are there any new varieties you think I should try?
This article has been updated - it was originally published in January of 2013.
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