Good Seeds, Bad Seeds

Good Seeds, Bad Seeds

  • By Cleve Campbell
  • /
  • January 2019-Vol.5 No.1
  • /
  • 1 Comment

The seed catalogs just keep rolling in.  All the incredible pictures accompanied by irresistible gourmet descriptions. But before filling out the order form or hitting an online seed site, there’s one uncompleted task: seed inventory, those left over seeds from years past. As I dig though the seed boxes, I am amazed to be finding seeds that are 5 and 6 years old and older. Before ordering new seeds, there’s that nagging question, are the seeds good, will they germinate and grow if planted? I don’t want to buy more if they are good.

Where to start: look at the package.  Most seed companies stamp it with a “packaged for” date. Some years ago, I got into the habit of writing the year on the seed packet because sometimes when I open the packet, I rip through the packing date, rendering the package date unreadable. I find that writing the date on the package when I purchase or receive them in the mail is a form of insurance. The next step:  do I remember the variety?  Did it perform up to my expectations or the expectations created by those wonderful descriptions in the seed catalog?  My wife and I have had many a debate on how certain varieties performed; were they good performers, just okay performers or a total disappointment?  Memory often becomes a little foggy when trying to recall how a certain variety performed last gardening season and what happened 3-4 years ago.   There have been many interesting conversations about planting aged seeds which usually ends with a show-stopper my wife brings out from time to time, “Well, if they were so great, why do we still have seeds left over from 8 years ago?”  To which my only rational response is, “Obviously, we ran out of garden space.”  Of course, rereading the seed descriptions in the catalog are of little help, all of the varieties described in the seed catalogs look and sound like amazing gourmet treats. The only true way of solving the mystery is going back to the garden journal and checking out my notes. Hopefully, I entered a detailed description on how well each variety performed that year, and whether or not to plant that variety again.  So I grab  the “ACE” tomato seed packet labeled 2009 and I go searching for my 2009 journal.  Over the years I have come to the conclusion that a garden journal may be the most overlooked and valuable garden tool in a gardener’s quiver.

Having retrieved my 2009 journal, I find the “ACE” tomato entry: outstanding performer, prolific, beautiful fruit, wonderful taste. No wonder I hung onto the seeds. Now the next question is : are the seeds still good? A couple of factors come in to play, but the most important factor is the variety, since some vegetable varieties have a longer shelf-life than other varieties.


Viability of Vegetable Seeds

(Average number of years seeds may be saved)

Vegetable                                   Years                           Vegetable                            Years

Asparagus                                     3                                 Leek                                       2

Bean                                               3                                 Lettuce                                  6

Beet                                                 4                                Muskmelon                          5

Broccoli                                         3                                 Mustard                                4

Brussels sprouts                          4                                 Okra                                       2

Cabbage                                        4                                  Onion                                    1

Carrot                                             3                                 Parsley                                  1

Cauliflower                                    4                                 Parsnip                                 1

Celery                                              3                                 Pea                                        3

Chinese cabbage                           3                                 Pepper                                  2

Collard                                            5                                 Pumpkin                              4

Corn, sweet                                    2                                 Radish                                   5

Cress, water                                   5                                 Rutabaga                              4

Cucumber                                      5                                 Spinach                                 3

Eggplant                                         4                                Squash                                   4

Endive                                             5                                Tomato                                  4

Kale                                                 4                                 Turnip                                     4

Kohlrabi                                         3

Chart adopted from Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication

The second variable is how they were stored. Moisture, heat, and fluctuating temperatures are a seed’s worst enemy.  Conditions essential to good seed storage are just the opposite of those that are required for good germination. Good germination occurs when water and oxygen are present at a favorable temperature, so eliminate these elements to ensure a long shelf life for your prized seeds.  Don’t simply abandon your leftover packets to the elements by leaving them in a garden shed.   Seeds that are stored in moisture- and vapor-proof containers in a cool, dark area will last at least a year, and if the container is stored below 40ºF., as in a refrigerator or freezer,  the shelf life may be extended. On the other hand, if the seed packets were merely stuck in a box and set on a shelf in the garage or the mud room where they were exposed to last summer’s tropical heat and humidity,  even long-lived seeds might not germinate well.

So what to do? Gamble on the old seeds or buy new ones? There is simple way to conduct a home germination test on the leftover seeds.  To find whether a package of seeds will germinate and grow, perform this simple home germination test :

  • Place 10 seeds an even distance apart on a damp paper towel.
  • Roll up the towel and place in a plastic bag. Why ten seeds? Because the number is easily calculated for germination expectancy in terms of percentages. So if only 6 seeds sprout, you’ll know that the germination rate is 60%.
  • Leave the damp, rolled towel in a warm spot for three to five days.
  • Check the towel moisture each day and add water when necessary. You can start checking the seeds as early as 3 days after setup. If you find moldy seeds, count them as dead and remove them or the mold may spread to other seedlings. You can count and remove the healthy seedlings as they develop. Keep track of how many days it takes the seed to germinate for future reference. The test is over when all the seeds have germinated or the normal number of days to germination is up.
  • The percentage of seed germinating in the towel will give you a fairly good idea how the same seeds will do in the garden.

Now back to the mystery of why I had those wonderful ACE tomato seeds in my seed inventory so long. As I was researching another tomato variety from 2011, I found I had replaced the ACE variety with a wonderful Cherokee Purple heirloom variety. The “ACE” seeds were stored in the freezer and I am going to do a germination test. If they germinate, I can always find room in the garden for one more tomato plant. I’m guessing the germination test will pass with flying colors, thanks to the freezer.  I often smile at a package of Rutgers seed that I purchased in 2001 that have been stored in the freezer and which still have a germination rate of 70-80 percent.

Thanks for stopping by The Garden Shed. We are looking forward to your visit next month.


“Seed for  the Garden,” Virginia Cooperative Extension,  Publication 426-316,

“How to Test your Stored Seed for Germination,” Oregon State University Cooperative Extension,

“Home Germination Testing,” Seed Savers Exchange,


  1. Carolyn Rhondeau

    Hi Cleve,
    I enjoyed reading about seeds and their viability. I don’t have a vegetable garden, but will take the hints about seeds you have provided here for my plants and their seeds. I am a seed saver. Thanks for all your writing in this edition.

Leave a Reply to Carolyn Rhondeau Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.