Question: I planted many vegetables and flowers this year and they are all doing well. But I had many seeds left over and need to know if I can use them next year and how to do that.
Answer: Your unused seeds will do well next year with a little care given to them now. It's best to store seeds in a cool, dry place -perhaps a closet or dark corner of your garage. Refrigerators also are a good place, though you will need to keep them in an airtight container so they don't absorb moisture, which will cause them to rot. And, a cautionary note, more is not better here. Do not store seeds in a freezer.
Most seeds last 3-4 years. The exceptions are onion, lettuce, parsley, parsnip, salsify and sea kale that last only about a year. Corn and leeks usually last two years.
If you are going to store them in the refrigerator (does anyone ever have any extra refrigerator room?) be sure to dehumidify the air inside your closed container by covering the bottom with a layer of silica gel, about an inch per gallon jar. You can get this from camera stores. Rice is also good as a desiccant to keep your seeds dry.
While many seeds remain capable of germinating for three to four years if stored in dry, cool places, you will most likely be more successful if they're stored for only one or two years.
In the interest of not doing the work of planting seeds that won't germinate, you might want to check the seed viability by doing a germination test. To do that, count out 20 seeds from the same packet. Spread them on three layers of pre-moistened paper towels, then roll them up carefully in the paper so the seeds stay separated. Put the rolled paper towels in a plastic bag and keep the incubating seeds in a warm place. Be sure to label!
Check the seeds after three days, then check them every day after that for a week. If a root protrudes from the seed, it has germinated. You need to allow three weeks to make sure any seeds that can, will germinate. At the end of that time, calculate the rate of germination. Ten seeds out of 20 give you a 50 percent germination; 15 germinated seeds yield a 75 percent success rate.
When planting your seeds you can adjust how many you plant according to the germination test results. Say you got a 75 percent germination. That means you'll plant one-fourth more of those seeds than you normally would.
If your germination is low (say under 70 percent) you might do better to buy new seeds. With all the work involved in planting and nurturing your garden, you don't want to begin with seeds that are too old and could produce weaker, slower-growing plants.
This WSU publication discusses seed viability.
Q: I know that composting is great. I just don't have much room, and I don't want that much work. I've heard about direct burial of kitchen wastes. What do you think about it?
A: Adding kitchen wastes directly to a garden does work, though it must be done to avoid the most predictable pitfall - varmints that love those delicious kitchen scraps, particularly meat, fat or dairy. To keep them at bay, dig a 1-foot trench down the center of a bed or in-between two rows. Each time you have wastes, bury them and cover with 4 inches of soil. You can plant over the buried wastes at any time.
Chances are good that animals won't dig up waste covered by soil, but if they do, just bury it deeper, or cover the trench with compost.
You also might give thought to a worm bin. You'll get rid of kitchen wastes and get lovely earthworm castings in return. Don't make the mistake so many do, however. Worms for bins are not the larger earthworms you see in your garden. They are red worms, also called red wigglers. You can try finding some in your yard, or you can buy them from commercial worm-growers, available locally as well as through mail order sources. You can easily locate a source on the Internet.
Keeping a worm bin is not difficult and can work almost anywhere. For years a friend of mine kept her worm bin under her bed. And no, it didn't smell!
Check this link on composting with worms.
Q: In summer we spend many evenings eating outside with food cooked on the grill. I always seem to have many ashes and wonder if I can use them in the garden.
A: As a garden amendment, coal is not cool. Coal ash contains many trace elements, as well as corn or wheat starch used as a binder. But the problem is the coal because some of it has toxic levels of sulfur and/or heavy metals that plants take up. It also can lead to lower soil pH.
The good news is that most briquettes in the U.S. are made from charcoal or other biomass, not from coal. So ashes from the grill are fine. By the time they are ashes, the accelerants the briquettes have on them to help them ignite are burned away.
ABOUT THIS COLUMN
Master Gardener Kathleen Bander is a resident of Bellingham and life-long gardener. For more information on Whatcom County Master Gardeners, go to whatcom.wsu.edu/ch/mg.html. Ask a Master Gardener will appear in The Bellingham Herald monthly after this column. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.