January is the time of the year when seed catalogs begin arriving in the mail, offering a host of favorite varieties, timeless heirlooms, and exotic flowers and vegetables for your garden. It’s tempting to dog-ear every page and want to order and plant one of everything you see — but if you don’t have the money or space for it, it’s essential to show some restraint. Know what to order by creating an inventory of the seeds you already have.

Start With What You Already Have

seed packet

If you’re like most gardeners, you’ll have some seeds leftover from the previous growing seasons. Generally, seeds from annual flowers will last anywhere from one to three years. Seeds from beans, brassicas, and peas can last from three to five years, while those from carrots, melons, cucumbers, oriental greens, parsley, onions, leeks, and spring onions can only last up to three. Spinach seeds tend to last a single season, while Swiss chard seeds can last up to two years. Zucchini and squash seeds tend to last between two and four years, lettuce seeds for two to five years, and pepper seeds for up to five years. Tomato seeds can last a whopping eight years in the right conditions.

If you’re not sure if your seeds are still viable, try testing a few. Place a few seeds on a damp kitchen towel, and wrap it loosely in a plastic sandwich bag. Put it in a warm spot for a few days, and then see if the seeds have germinated. If these ones have, the rest of them likely will, too. If not, it’s time to toss them.

If you’ve hung on to seeds longer than the aforementioned timeframes, toss them. What about the seeds you already tried to plant but just didn’t work out in the garden? If they’re still viable, consider changing up the growing conditions this year (e.g. grow them in a pot instead of in the garden, start them earlier or later, or grow them in a greenhouse), or give them to a friend who you think may have better luck with them.

Create Your Inventory

Gather the packets of seeds you wish to grow again this year. Write down their names and varieties as well as when and where you purchased them. You can do this in a notebook or on a spreadsheet on your computer, tablet, or smartphone. This list will help you for years to come when you’re planning your garden.

Look at each packet to see how many seeds you have in total. If you’re running low, write down the name and variety of the seed so you can order more.

Place an asterisk or star next to the varieties that did really well in the garden and that you’re excited to grow again. For example, if amethyst beans grew like gangbusters last season, plan on ordering more this year to increase your crop yield.

Try New Varieties

seed packets

After you’ve determined which seeds you'll be able to grow again this season, think about new varieties you’d like to try growing this year as well. Of course, it can be a little overwhelming to look through seed catalogs for new seeds, especially if you want to grow everything you see. Before you order, learn about what grows best in your area and zone (for example, I would love to grow hot peppers and melons in my garden, but my zone is too cool for them to thrive in unless they’re grown in a greenhouse). Consider the growing conditions of the plants you’d like to grow to ensure a successful crop.

Another thing to consider if you’re purchasing flowers and vegetables for your garden is what you and your family will eat. Sure, plants like Brussels sprouts may add height and visual interest to the garden, and turnips may be good for you, but if your family just won’t eat them, you may want to reconsider growing them. After all, you don’t want to be stuck with a bumper crop of veggies that you don’t plan to use and can’t give away to your friends or neighbors.

Keep Your Inventory Up to Date

When you’ve purchased your seeds, be sure to update your spreadsheet or notebook with the seed type, date purchased, and store you purchased them from. The more up-to-date you keep this information, the easier it’ll be to reorder your favorite varieties come next year.

How to Store Seeds

store your seeds in jars

Keep your seeds in a spot that's dry and cool, like in the garage or basement, and they’ll last much longer. Specifically, seeds last longer when stored in an area that maintains a temperature of about 50 degrees and about 50-percent humidity. Store them in a jar (like a leftover pickle or Mason jar) with a bit of rice at the bottom to absorb any excess moisture. Remember, a little planning now will help you save a lot of time and money later.