We’ve all ended up with packets of seeds from previous years. Are those seeds any good? Even if they sprout, will they grow into healthy, productive plants?
How long do seeds last, anyway?
I am asked that question every spring. And every spring I tell people, “It depends.”
The answer comes down to viability and vigor.
Seed viability refers to a seed’s ability to germinate under normal conditions. Seed vigor is all about that seed’s ability to successfully grow into a mature plant. The likelihood of a seed being able to germinate coming out of storage depends on the type of plant and the way it was stored. But start by looking at the seed packet.
If you look at a seed packet, you may see a “packed for” date. You may also see a “sow by” date. The “packed for” date tells you the year the seeds were produced and packaged. The “sow by” date tells you the point at which seeds will be less likely to produce strong, vital plants.
Seeds may not look like anything exciting is going on, but they are alive. They are eating and breathing embryonic plants. They just do those things very slowly. Stored starches (endosperm) are consumed and gas exchanges still occur. It isn’t until the seed hull is softened by moisture and heat that the exciting business of germination begins. But how can you help your seeds survive being held in storage and how can you tell if they are any good?
1.Wet a paper towel or paper coffee filter and squeeze out as much water as you can.
2.Place up to 10 seeds on the paper towel.
3.Roll it up or fold it and put it in a sealable bag or plastic container.
4.Be sure to attach a note that includes the plant type, the date the test started, and the average days until germination from the seed packet.
5.Place the bag in a safe, warm spot, above 70F°.
6.Mist as needed to maintain humidity without getting soggy.
7.After one week, check the seeds every day for signs of germination.
Note that some seeds need light to germinate. This group includes chamomile, lemon balm, lettuce, and savory. You can conduct the same test with these seeds, simply leave the paper towel flat, exposing the seeds to light.
If you test 10 seeds and 7 of them germinate, you will know that they have a 70% germination rate. Generally speaking, germination rates below 70% are not worth planting. Also, this won’t tell you if those seeds have the energy they need to thrive, but you will at least know what to expect in the germination department. And those germinated seeds can be gently planted in soil. Don’t worry if some of the paper is attached. It’ll disappear on its own before you know it.
In fact, you can make planting easy by tearing paper towels into strips and putting drops of non-toxic glue at the proper intervals. Then pour seeds over the strips (in a big container so you don’t lose seeds), give the strips a shake, and lay them flat to dry. Be sure to write the seed type on the paper towel. This works especially well with tiny lettuce seeds that are scattered on the soil surface. The paper toweling holds them in place long enough to start growing, but the glue and paper towel decompose into the soil. This is a fun kids’ activity, too.
Not all seeds will sprout well in a damp paper towel. Peanuts and Malabar spinach, for example, need soil. For these seeds, use a tray filled with wet potting soil. Cover the seeds with vermiculite to help maintain moisture levels. Keep the soil warm and moist. Seeds should germinate in 7–10 days.
Instead of letting seeds die of old age and neglect, take some time to go through your seeds and plant them sooner, rather than later.
This year, I’ve decided to plant every seed I own. I have to stay home anyway, being low on the vaccine list, so it seems like the perfect time. Plus, two friends have given me all their canning equipment!
It’s going to be a busy summer…
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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