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Are last year's seeds OK to plant?

Often many of us are prone to keep our unused seed over to use next year, especially if we liked the variety of the plant. Sometimes we forget how many years it was since we purchased it. Seeds we purchase have an expiration or sell-by date. However, if you are keeping seeds, how long are they viable?

Do not buy seeds that are past their expiration or sell-by date, or even if they are close to these dates. If you save your own seeds, make sure to let them dry out before storing them. Moisture and humidity are two big causes of disaster with saved seeds. Seeds should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place; an envelope of seeds should be in an airtight container, stored in your refrigerator. Throw in a silica-gel pack (like the one you find in vitamin bottles) to absorb moisture.

If you are unsure, or just want to know how viable your seeds are, try this simple test before wasting your time on seeds that may be duds. Place some ­-- not all -- seeds on a moist paper towel, and cover them with another moist paper towel. Put them in plastic ziplock bag, and set the bag in a warm place. Check it often and mist when necessary to make sure the paper towels stay moist. Within a few days, most seeds should start to sprout. If few or no seeds have sprouted within 2-3 weeks (check the seed package for germination times), it is safe to discard the expired seeds and the remainder of the seed packet.

Mix some vegetables in with your flower garden

One thing you might like to experiment with in your flower garden this year is to plant vegetables. This has the advantage of being tasty as well as attractive. There is nothing new about blurring the line between edibles and ornamental plantings. It was the cornerstone of the traditional cottage-garden style. The primary point isn't raising enough food to feed your family through the winter or making dramatic design statements with artfully patterned vegetable plantings. It's the joy of creating exciting combinations and beautiful gardens with plants that you enjoy.

Vegetables and fruits have distinctive foliage that contributes color or texture, or both, over an extended period or even through the entire growing season. Cabbage has much to offer with its interesting spherical shape and large leaves. It begins with blue-green leaves at the beginning of the season, and as the heads form, changes to a lighter green. The purple variety of cabbage is absolutely beautiful and a real standout in any garden.

Kale has wonderful color and texture, and if it is left to grow the entire season, will reach heights of 3 to 4 feet. Leaf edges are ruffled and it has blue-green and burgundy colored leaves. There is also a flowering cabbage or kale which is shorter and forms a cabbage like head that is about 12 inches across with frilled, waved and lacy leaves that take on vibrant shades of red, pink and white against their green base, as summer cools down.

Brussel sprouts start out as loose, low heads with broad leaves, like cabbage, but grow upward like types of kale to about 30 inches. By late summer the sprouts, which resemble miniature cabbage, form at the leaf joints along the stout main stem, adding even more interest. While some may think brussel sprouts are bitter, this is one plant that tastes sweeter after a good frost. So you can enjoy them all season, and when it freezes, continue to enjoy the nutritious sprouts.

Other vegetables which are showy are the broad-leaved bok choy, with its green leaves and white stalk. Swiss chard grows 1 to 2 feet, has a fountain-shape, and bright green or deep red leaves, that have contrasting veins and stalks. Spinach and lettuce come in an endless variety of colors and shapes. Carrots give a great contrast of color and texture with their cone shaped and lacy foliage.

Tomatoes and peppers add show with their leaf shape as well as the shape and color of their fruit. Tomatoes come in many colors and sizes. Peppers form low bushy plants in the range of 1 to 3 feet. Their fruit is usually green or deep purple when they first form, ripening to bright shades of red orange, yellow or purple, and they range in size and shape from tiny round globes or tapering cones to substantial, blocky, bell-type peppers.

Why waste space on plants that are just pretty faces? If you start mixing in some that are both showy and productive, you will never be at a loss for a side dish or salad fixings. What a great excuse to spend your grocery money on the garden instead.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.