Store seeds in airtight container, mark date

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Q. I am relatively new to vegetable gardening. However, I like the idea of being able to save seeds from the plants in my garden, so I am growing mostly open-pollinated varieties. I think I have a good idea how to save various seeds but I need to know the best way to store them after they have been harvested and cleaned.

A. Store your seed in airtight jars or plastic containers in the refrigerator. The silica gel packs that are often shipped with electronics can be placed in the container to help keep the seeds dry.

Be sure to mark the containers with the variety and the date saved. Depending on the crop, seed will remain viable from one to five years. You can check the germination by sprouting the seeds between moist paper towels. If germination is low (say one out of 10 seeds), discard the seed and buy fresh. If you have a lot of old seed, you may be able to plant enough of it to get the desired number of plants.

The following table on seed viability comes from the Penn State Master Gardener Handbook:

Vegetable #Years Seed Can Be Stored

Asparagus 3

Bean 3

Beet 4

Broccoli 5

Brussels sprouts 5

Cabbage 5

Carrot 3

Cauliflower 5

Celery 5

Chinese cabbage 5

Collard 5

Cucumber 5

Eggplant 5

Endive 5

Kale 5

Kohlrabi 5

Leek 1

Lettuce 5

Muskmelon 5

Okra 2

Onion 1

Parsley 2

Parsnip 1

Pea 3

Pepper 4

Pumpkin 4

Radish 5

Rutabaga 5

Spinach 5

Squash 5

Sweet corn 1

Tomato 4

Turnip 5

Watermelon 5

Q. I planted several apple trees six years ago, and they are bearing fruit. They produced quite a few apples, but they were very small and disappointing. What can I do to improve the size and quality of the fruit?

A. Apple trees often set more fruit than they can mature to a good size and quality. If you permit all that fruit to stay on the tree until harvest time, you will wind up with a lot of small apples. Commercial orchards produce large, high-quality fruits by careful attention to thinning the crop to improve fruit size and following a spray schedule to control disease and insect pests.

Apples naturally lose some of their abundant crop on their own; some pea-sized fruit will drop after the flowers lose all of their petals (petal fall). These fruits usually have not been pollinated properly due to cool, rainy weather or poorly timed insecticide applications that interfere with bee activity. Late spring frosts can also damage the flowers to the point that the fruit aborts. There is a second drop late May into early June when the apples are larger, commonly known as June drop. This occurs from competition among the fruits for water and nutrients. Hot, dry weather in spring can exacerbate June drop.

In addition to the fruit that falls on its own, you often need to do additional thinning to get the larger fruit you desire. It is ideal to remove all but the largest fruit from each cluster, and space the apples 8-10 inches apart on the branch. While commercial orchards often rely on chemical thinning, hand thinning is a better choice for home orchardists. Chemical thinning does not permit the best positioning of fruit on the branch, and you can remove too many apples this way. Hand thinning allows you to choose the largest, healthiest fruits to keep. Thin remaining fruits as soon as possible after June drop.

In addition to increasing fruit size, thinning allows the tree to produce flower buds for next year's crop. Some varieties will bear crops in alternate years if you do not thin out enough excess fruit. Thinning also protects the trees from breaking under a heavy load of fruit. Properly thinned fruit is exposed to more sun and better air circulation, which can help reduce disease problems and allow more even ripening. It is also easier to get good coverage with pesticide applications when fruits are separate rather than hanging in clusters.


Send questions to Sandy Feather by email at or by regular mail c/o Penn State Extension, 400 N. Lexington Ave., Pittsburgh 15208.


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