As the seed catalogs start pouring in, it's good to keep in mind just how long a pack of seeds will last.

A gift certificate and a copy of the 2004 Territorial Seeds spring catalog greeted me upon my return from a holiday trip south. I've trained myself to use the annual gift from my father-in-law to buy our vegetable seeds each year, and to get the order in by the end of the month for the best selection. While it's hard not to spend the birthday booty on some of Territorial's lovely new ornamental offerings, such as 'Trailing Plum' coleus and 'Escargot' begonias, I've learned that the satisfaction of eating homegrown beets and greens, beans and carrots is a mighty reward for a little January self-restraint.

Acquiring new seed packets means it's time to throw out the old. There is a certain number of years that each type of seed remains viable and grows into healthy seedlings. If your seed envelopes date back to the 1980s and 90s, you'd be better off chucking them and buying new seeds for this spring's planting season.

If you want to be absolutely certain they are really too old, you can test their germination with a few seeds placed in a wet paper towel in a warm room.

If seeds are kept dry, they last longer than in more humid conditions. For example, seed saving on the west side of the Cascades is more difficult than on the east side where it is drier.

Some types of seeds are naturally more short-lived than others. Parsnip seeds almost never last more than one growing season, no matter how they are stored. Spinach and allium (onions and leeks) seeds are relatively short lived also. The amount of oil in seeds correlates somewhat with how long a seed tends to remain viable. Generally, the higher oil content seeds decline in germination rate more quickly.

Seed is best stored through the winter at 40 degrees at 50 percent humidity. A good way to store unused seed packets is to place them in a sealed jar with a desiccant such as powdered milk or rice at the bottom to absorb moisture. Rice can be used again as a desiccant if you dry it in the oven at a low temperature. Store your seed jar in the refrigerator or a cool area, such as a basement.

Average seed life for common homegrown vegetables and flowers is given below, based upon findings from Oregon State University researchers. These seed life spans reflect no special care taken. If you keep your seeds dry and cool, you can expect many of them to last longer than the time periods indicated here, especially beans, peas and corn.

• Bush or pole beans - three years

• Beets - two years

• Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi - three to five years

• Carrots - three years

• Collard, kale - three to five years

• Sweet corn - one year

• Cucumbers - three years

• Leeks, onions - two years

• Lettuce - two years

• Melons - three years

• Oriental greens - three years

• Parsley - two years

• Parsnips - one year

• Peas - two years

• Peppers - two years

• Radishes - four years

• Rutabagas - three years

• Spinach - one season

• Squash - three years

• Swiss chard - two years

• Tomatoes - three years

• Turnips - four years

• Flower seed - annuals are generally good for one to three years; perennials for two to four years.

Cathy Peterson belongs to the Clatsop County Master Gardener Association. "In the Garden" runs weekly in Coast Weekend. Send comments and gardening news to "In the Garden," The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or online to peterson@pacifier.com

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