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Are Your Garden Seeds Still Good? Here’s How To Tell

Don't waste time and effort! Before you get growing, check to see if your seeds will germinate with these helpful tips.

Before you plant older seeds find out if they’ll still germinate with these helpful tips.

If you’ve started planning your spring garden, you might be taking stock and seeing what materials you have to work with. Are you wondering if the seeds you intended to use last year are still good? Or, what about those heirloom seeds you got as a wedding favor a few years back?

Just like most things in nature, seeds have a shelf life and you need to determine your seeds’ ability to germinate before you start planting. You don’t want to waste your time and effort!

Seed Viability – In A “Nutshell”

seedlings growing in dirt and sunlight

Most brand new seeds have a 90% germination rate, meaning that 9 out of every 10 seeds you plant should grow. But if you’ve got seeds that have been hanging around for three years, the germination rate drops to around 60%. That means you’ll need to plant a higher number of these older seeds to increase your chances of growing something.

Seed Viability Test For Older Seeds

If you have older seeds, it’s wise to do a quick viability test prior to planting when using older seeds. Here’s what to do:

It’s a good idea to test viability on older seeds.
  1. Fold a dampened paper towel in half.
  2. Take 2-3 seeds and place them on the damp towel.
  3. Fold the towel over the seeds and place them in a zippered plastic bag or airtight container in a warm location.
  4. After a few days, open the bag and take a peek to see if any sprouted. This will give you a good gauge of how your seeds are germinating.

If the germination rate is low, but there is still some viability (for example, maybe only 2 of the seeds in your test sprouted), simply plant more of those seeds in the garden, knowing that not all may sprout. You’re just increasing the sprouting odds.

If none of them sprout, obviously, you’ll have to purchase fresh seeds.

Seed Storage Tips

Heirloom seeds are often given as wedding favors!

The key to keeping your seeds viable for a few seasons is proper storage. Be sure to do the following:

  • Keep your seeds in a cool spot that offers a consistent temperature. Your best bet is to put them in a moisture-proof sealed container (if they’re already in packets, you can keep them right in the packets while storing) and store in your freezer or refrigerator. It is extremely important the seeds are 100% dry or mold will develop. You can even add some rice to the container to wick away any possibly moisture.
  • Keep them out of direct sunlight.
  • Keep them away from any humidity or moisture.

How you store them won’t only be for the long-term, it will be your day-to-day access while you’re outside sowing.

Storage Life of Vegetable Seeds

Below is a list of the approximate lifespan of your favorite vegetable, herb, and flower seeds when stored properly. Keep in mind this is just an estimate—many seeds might be viable much longer, while others a bit shorter.

VegetableStorage Life
Asparagus3 years
Beans3 years
Beets4 years
Broccoli4 years
Brussels sprouts4 years
Cabbage4 years
Carrot3 years
Cauliflower4 years
Celery3 years
Chard, Swiss4 years
Chicory4 years
Chinese Cabbage (Bok Choy)3 years
Corn, Sweet2 years
Cucumber5 years
Eggplant3 years
Endive5 years
Kale4 years
Leek2 years
Lettuce4 years
Melon5 years
Mustard4 years
Okra2 years
Onion1 year
Parsnip1 year
Pea3 years
Pepper3 years
Pumpkin4 years
Radish4 years
Rutabaga4 years
Spinach2 years
Squash4 years
Tomato5 years
Turnip4 years
Watermelon4 years

Storage Life of Herb Seeds

Oregano seeds
HerbStorage Life
Anise3 years
Basil5-7 years
Catnip5 years
Chives1 year
Cilantro5-7 years
Dill3 years
Fennel4 years
Lavender5 years
Oregano2 years
Parsley1 year
Sage3 years
Savory3 years
Thyme3 years

Storage Life of Flower Seeds

Seedlings in pot and seed packets, close up, isolated on white background
FlowerStorage Life
Ageratum4 years
Alyssum4 years
Amaranth3 years
Aster1 year
Baby’s Breath2 years
Bachelor’s Button3 years
Calendula5 years
Celosia4 years
Clarkia2 years
Coleus2 years
Columbine2 years
Cosmos3 years
Dahlia2 years
Daisy3 years
Delphinium1 year
Dianthus4 years
Foxglove2 years
Geranium1 year
Hibiscus3 years
Hollyhock3 years
Impatiens2 years
Larkspur1 year
Lobelia3 years
Lupine2 years
Marigold2 years
Nasturtium5 years
Nicotiana3 years
Pansy2 years
Petunia3 years
Phlox1 year
Poppy4 years
Salvia1 year
Snapdragon3 years
Sweet Pea3 years
Verbena1 year
Zinnia5 years

As a general rule, most annual flower seeds are viable for 1-3 years and perennial seeds for 2-4 years.

Other Seed Viability Considerations

While age, variety, and storage are key factors in how your seeds germinate, you should also consider the following:

  • Light — Some seeds need light to germinate, while others need dark.
  • Pre-soaking and Scarification—Some seeds have tough outer seed coats that can make it difficult for a seedling to break through. To soften that outer cover, you can presoak the seed overnight. You can also use sandpaper or a knife to gently scratch the seed coat to create an opening through which the seedling can emerge. Your seed packet will tell you if this is required.
  • Cold Treatment— Some seeds need to be exposed to a period of cold prior to being able to germinate. How cold and for how long, all depends on the plant. But most are easy enough to just be placed in the refrigerator for a few weeks prior to sowing. Your seed packet will instruct you if this is required.
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Allison Vallin

Allison Vallin is the Farmers' Almanac Art Director. When she's not busy designing, you can find her out in her permaculture paradise in Maine where she lives with her husband, two sons, pets, and a flock of chickens. With over two decades of organic gardening experience, she loves sharing the secrets of living the good life. Visit her on her Finch + Folly website, or find her on Instagram and Facebook.

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