In the basement, I have a lovely stash of seeds. I’ve been given some of them, while others are from my own garden. As gardeners’ thoughts turn to preparation for the coming spring, how can you tell whether those seeds you’ve got in your own stash are going to grow?
What is Seed Viability?
A viable seed is one that can grow into a plant. You’ve probably noticed that your garden soil contains seeds that are ready to grow. In nature, plants send out their seeds when they’ve finished flowering and fruiting for the season. The new seeds may grow the next year, or they may become part of the soil’s seed bank, laying dormant but ready to take root in a future year. When you move soil in your garden, those seeds that have been sitting dormant in the soil get the light and water they need and start to grow. They’re still viable even though they’ve been sitting in the soil for a long time.
Checking the Balance in Your Seed Bank
If you’re storing seeds from your own garden or you just bought too many last year, you have your own seed bank, but it’s likely indoors. There’s nothing more disappointing than planting your seeds, waiting expectantly, and having nothing come up. While you can’t control many factors in the growing environment for your seeds, you can determine whether the seeds you plant are still viable before you plant them. How can you tell whether the seeds in your collection are still viable and ready to grow?
If your personal seed collection contains a lot of packages of seeds and you’re not certain when they were purchased or collected, you may want to conduct a simple viability test to see whether your seeds will grow in your garden this year. Moisten a paper towel and place a label next to it. Place at least 10 seeds from the package onto the moist towel, fold the towel in half, and place it into a sealed bag in a warm room (70 F). Look up the typical germination time for that particular seed, and check the seeds daily to determine whether they are germinating. Once you’ve gone for a week without seeing another seed germinate, count the number of seeds that germinated. If the percentage is less than 70 percent, you probably want to invest in new seeds. You can still plant the old ones if you want, but don’t count on them for your crop this year.
Read more: Winter time is garden dreaming time!
Typical Viability of Stored Seeds
If you have a lot of seeds and you don’t want to test them all, here’s an easy way to determine whether your seeds could be viable. Different seeds last for different amounts of time in storage. Remember that these are guesses: the best way to see if your seeds are viable is to test them.
- One Year: Corn (may last for two), parsnip, onion
- Two Years: Peppers, okra
- Three Years: Beans, peas, carrots
- Four Years: Beets, squash (including pumpkins), tomatoes, spinach
- Five Years: Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage), cucumbers, cantaloupe, radish, lettuce and other greens
Remember that if you’ve saved purchased seeds from last year, you may not need to panic – if they’re brassicas or squash, they’ll last for years. When in doubt, try them out.
If you want to keep growing your own plants year after year we recommend you read:
Storing Your Seeds
If you find that many of your stored seeds are not viable, never fear. You can do better in future years! What you need is a good storage area. The ideal storage area for seeds is dry and dark, and it should be cool as well: 40 F is a good temperature. A cool, dry, and dark basement is the ideal place to store your seeds.
Have you had success using older seeds in your garden? What’s the oldest seed that you’ve used?