Test your old seed before buying new

If there is one thing that can get the gardener on the move, it's the seasonal fly-in of the gay and gaudy seed catalogs. With their arrival on both sides of the Christmas holiday, we know for sure that it's later than anybody really knows. Simply, it's time to be ordering the seeds.

Yet before dropping the order in the mailbox, it's a good idea to look over any seed packets that may be left over from last year. Also, did you save any seeds from last year's tree-ripened fruit in the backyard?

If seeds have been stored carefully -- in a dry, warm place that has plenty of ventilation and protection from moisture, mice, and weevils -- you should have no problem. However, if there is any doubt about their viability, the wise thing to do is run a test to be sure.

It can save time, work, and money, and the procedure is very simple.

For most seeds, dampen them, cover with plastic, keep them warm, and inspect them often. For example, one year I had a batch of sugar snap-peas left over from planting (simply, I overordered). Knowing how peas love the cold.I dumped them out of their paper package and into a screwtop jar, labeled it, and made room for them in the freezer.

A week later I took 10 seeds out, rolled them up loosely in a damp cloth, and put them into a plastic sandwich bag which I then put into a bowl on the back of the kitchen stove. Three days later seven of the seeds had sprouted.

with the seedbed already prepared, on the first day I decided I'd plant the rest of the seeds around a 6-foot-high wire ring. They'll be ready to sprout in the garden just as soon as the weather gives them the go-ahead, I reasoned. And I was right.

Some seeds, notably beans and peas, will sprout almost overnight. Others, among which are parsely (well-known for its willful ways in germinating) and carrots (ditto), may need as long as a month or more. This is simply too long to keep them rolled up in plastic, largely because of the danger of mold.

With these slow sprouters the best way is to prepare boxes in which to plant them. Milk cartons with one side removed and filled with a mix of vermiculite and clean sand are ideal. Or, as some home gardeners have always done, put a few doubtful seeds into the edges of handy house-plant pots for testing.

The best method I know for testing parsley seed is to scatter the seed in the chopped-over, composted bed in the late fall when you're cleaning up the garden. In their own good time they will appear, usually making a fluorishing patch. If not, just replant them in the spring.

When ordering new seeds, plan carefully, go softly, and think before you make a choice. The price is going up every year, for one thing, and the total can mount up fast.

In some catalogs the number of seeds in the package is indicated as well as the length of the row they will plant if the package directions are followed. Thus, for this, as well as for many other reasons, it's a top priority to study the listings before you order.

How about making some compost? If you have the materials and wish to work at it, there is hardly a time of the year when you cannot make compost. The batch I started in January will be ready by April. Last year I was succesful in making plastic-bag compost, and I've decided to have a go at it again this year. I put all the gar bage into the bag, which I keep tightly tied with a piece of wire and leave in a protected spot under the outside stairway. The regular compost pile is covered tightly with black plastic to keep out the winter snow and to encourage the earth worms to burrow deeply into it.

From now on I won't need to out, struggle to uncover and dig into the frozen pile, or dump my compost makings into the garbage pail. It will be quietly composting right up until spring arrives. At that time there should be a good batch of it, all neat and finished under the back stairs.

Actually, the plastic bag will take several pounds of kitchen garbage a day for up to several months before filling up.

The warm days of spring will be here before you know it.

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