Depending on where you store them and what types of seeds they contain, your old seed packets with donkey ears may or may not be worth using this season.

Seeds are alive; they do not live forever. Spreading dead seeds in the garden or in seed surfaces is a waste of time.

When you buy a package of seeds, government standards ensure that a minimum percentage of them is alive. The packing date is usually stamped on the package and, if lower than the standard, the percentage of germination. I write the year on all seed packages on which the date is not stamped.

OPTIMAL STORAGE

Low temperature, low humidity and low oxygen slow biological and chemical reactions and therefore also slow aging of seeds. My seeds find their low temperature and low humidity in sealed canning jars in the depths of my freezer in the spring and summer. Through the autumn, frozen fruit and vegetables claim freezer space, so I move the pots filled with seed packages in my fridge.

A simple way to keep the humidity in the pots low is to sprinkle powdered milk from a freshly opened box into the bottom of the pots. Renew the milk powder every year.

There is no practical way to store backyard-gardeners seeds in a low-oxygen atmosphere. Some seed companies sell their seeds in hermetically sealed, plastic-lined foil packets, although I have never noticed better germination of these foil packets than of ordinary old paper packages.

SEED OR NOT BEING SUCH

Seeds differ in how long they remain viable. Even with the best storage conditions, it is generally not worthwhile to sow celery, parsley, parsnip or salsify seed after they are more than a year old. Two years of sowing can be expected from packets of carrot, onion and maize seed; three years of peas and beans, bell peppers, radishes and beets; and four or five years from cabbage, broccoli, sprouts, cucumbers, melons and lettuce.

Among flower seeds are the shortest living delphinium, aster, candytuft and phlox. Packets of alyssum, Shasta daisy, calendula, sweet peas, poppies and marigold can be reused for five or ten years before their seeds get too old.

TEST THEM

An annual germ test is a definitive measure for the question of whether an old seed package is worth saving. Count out at least 20 seeds of each package to be tested every spring and then spread the seeds over two damp paper towels on a plate. Reverse another plate on the first plate to retain moisture and place the entire setup at a temperature of about 75 degrees.

After one to two weeks, peel off the paper towels and count the number of seeds with small white root "tails" emerging. Set the percentage, and if it is low, throw the seed packages in the trash (do not give them away!) Or adjust your sowing speed accordingly.

Nobody knows exactly what happens in a seed to make it viable. In addition to a lack of germination, old seeds undergo a slight change in color, lose their luster and are more susceptible to fungal infections.

It was assumed that the record for the life span of seeds was maintained by a species of lupine, Lupinus arcticus, whose seeds have been germinated after 10,000 years. Great story, but further research showed that the seed is much younger – only a few decades old!

The current valid record for the oldest viable seeds is preserved by a 2000-year-old date palm seed that has been found near the Dead Sea.

At the other end of life are seeds of silver maple, which retain their capacity to germinate for only about a week.

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