Master Gardener looks to spring

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 | 12:42 p.m. CST; updated 5:53 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The seed catalogs start arriving in late December, and January and February give perfect weather for ordering seeds in the hope of spring. And with only 10 weeks until the average last frost here in central Missouri, it is even time to begin setting some seedlings indoors for early spring planting.

Although a great variety of seed catalogs arrive, I find that again and again I, no doubt like most gardeners, keep going back to the same well. But this year I decided to deliberately try at least some new seed varieties. What follows is necessarily more personal than a general look at restocking one’s seeds.

But first, why not use last year’s seeds? The packets always contain several hundred more seeds than one ever uses before their viability is gone. Indeed it would be nice if the suppliers could find a way to supply say only two dozen or so of each chosen variety in a packet the size of a postage stamp, with postage charges to match. Instead each catalog typically has a large minimum shipping and handling charge. (What else do they have to do in supplying seeds that they must charge yet more for handling the order?) It discourages one from ordering from more than one or two suppliers.

But I digress. While seeds from many of last year’s packets can be successfully sown this year, different seeds have different viability lifetimes.

Onions seeds are the worst because they are dependable for only one season’s planting.

In the same category are parsnip and leek seeds, with corn and salsify a close second for brief viability.

On the other end of this spectrum are tomato, cucumber, melons and the mustards. All of these seeds can remain viable for five or more years.

In the mid-range, seeds that remain viable from three to five years are those of beans, brussels sprouts, carrot, kale, lettuce, okra, peas, peppers, spinach, turnip and watermelon.

An exception to escalating shipping and handling costs is one of my two favorite catalogs, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds of Mansfield, Mo. This company charges a small flat fee found on its Web site, This is a beautifully produced catalog with exceptional photography, apparently a hobby of the owner, Jere Gettle. The selection of melons and tomatoes is the best I’ve seen — all the old standbys, plus many I’ve never heard of. This year I decided to try the Muquee de Provence, a deeply classical pumpkin variety from southern France and the Quadrato D’Asti Giallo, a yellow sweet pepper from Italy. Of course our climate is not theirs, and such choices can often disappoint in the end but not in the anticipation.

Dennis Sentilles, MU professor emeritus of mathematics, is a Missouri Master Gardener and a member of Katy Trail Slow Food International with a love for working outdoors and eating simply and well every day. He can be reached at

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