Alys Fowler

Seeds Seeds Seeds

Do you have a habit of collecting something? Alys is mad about seeds and talks us through how best to keep and store seeds that you've accumulated over the year.

I own a seed collection like others might own records or shoes or comic books. There is a part of me that thinks you can never have too many, a part that falls for every new package design, that likes some brands because of the way they tear open and others because of their package descriptions or garish photos even when I know the contents are exactly the same.

I have seed packets long emptied but held onto them for sentimental reasons. I have rarities hidden amongst the prosaic. I have things that I have no room to grow, live in the wrong climate or just don’t like to eat. I have everything, often in multiples and yet I buy more even if I don’t need them. 

Every spring I have to sort the bad (out of date) from the good. I love this process; I love the memories, hopes and aspirations that come in these little paper envelopes. I love thinking of the coming season and how I might finally get outdoor melons right or how delicious the first golden beetroot will taste, or the first bite of Romano lettuce or the smell of tomato leaves. All that promise of what’s to come.

Seeds are cheap and that’s part of their appeal, but they are not that cheap that you should waste them. It’s astonishing how quickly a few packets add up to a considerable sum and not just its monetary value. Those seeds came from plants that had to be tended, watered, fertilised and looked after.

Non-organic seeds will have had pesticides added; they may have been treated with fungicides and other chemicals to prevent soil rots and other diseases. All of these things have a cost both to the producer and to the environment. Wasting a packet of seed carelessly isn’t kind to the mother plant or the planet.

Firstly, seeds are not invincible. They have a shelf life and will go off. Some seeds have a notoriously long shelf life; poppies can germinate after a hundred years however carrots tend to go off within a year. No seed will germinate if it’s rotten and the quickest way to rot seed is to leave an opened packet out in the wrong conditions. Heat and humidity wreck seeds so leaving an open packet on a windowsill or in a greenhouse is a quick way to say goodbye to the contents. Always fold down the foil packet that the seeds came in to prevent moisture creeping in and if possible keep all you seeds in a sealed container, out of the sun. A plastic food container with a sealed lid is ideal.

Seeds should be stored around 15-18 degrees Celsius somewhere shaded and dry. If you have seeds that are very special to you that you want to preserve, home saved family heirlooms, seeds from abroad or given by a dear friend then store the seeds in a sealed freezer-proof container in the freezer. Seeds stored this way can last for millennia, again as long as no moisture gets in.

Finally those little dehydrating gel sachets that you get with white goods, shoes, etc that keep the moisture out, are ideal for your seed store. You can reactivate them by putting them in your own on the lowest setting for 20 minutes or so (till they are warm to touch). These absorb excess moisture and help to keep your seeds in prime condition, ready for the following year.

Here's a rough guide to how long seed will last if stored properly

  • Beans up to 5 years
  • Beetroot, chard, up to 3 years
  • Brassicas/cabbages up to7 years
  • Carrots up to 3 years
  • Courgettes and squashes up to 4 years
  • Cucumbers and melons up to 10 years
  • Lettuces up to 5 years
  • Onions and leeks up to 2 years
  • Parsley up to 3 years
  • Parsnips up to 2 years
  • Peas up to 5 years
  • Tomatoes up to 8 years
  • Chilies/peppers up to 5 years