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January 18, 2019

30 Comments

GUEST BLOG POST

Hi there! This is Allison over at Finch + Folly and I am so happy to be partnering with Pinetree Garden Seeds today. I’m even more excited because Pinetree and I share the same beautiful hometown of New Gloucester, ME. If you follow me over on Instagram ( @finchandfolly), you know that gardening here in the North can be challenging at times, so it always inspires me to see what’s growing over in Pinetree’s trial gardens. After spending the past two decades organic gardening, I have become quite picky as to where I buy my seeds. Maine’s growing season is fairly short, so I pretty much only get one opportunity at sowing some crops. Because of this, I need to know that the seeds I’m sowing will germinate. Sounds simple enough, but we’ve all been there…you sow a flat of seeds, give them all the love and care they require, and patiently wait for them to sprout…but they don’t, or just a few germinate from the many sown. I simply don’t want to risk that anymore, so I look to buy my seeds from companies that not only run their own trial gardens, but also actively test their germination rates regularly. Happily, Pinetree Garden Seeds does both and I can feel rest assured that the crops I sow will end up being crops I harvest.

Now, that new seed you just ordered this year will be all good to go in terms of germination. You may not know, but there  are federal standards of seed germination for vegetables and many flowers. Pinetree only packs a seed if it is above the federal standard. 

But, what about that big basket of seeds you have left over from last year? Chances are, those seeds still have a lot of growing to do, I just recommend testing out their viability first so you won’t have any germination heartbreak later. In a nutshell, seeds are alive, arriving to us in a dormant stage. When kept in proper storage condition, many seeds can stay dormant for years beyond their recommended used by date.

 

But there are a couple of factors that play into the viability of your seeds:

  1. Age — All seeds are viable for at least a year, with many others viable for definitely two years. After that, the seeds germination rate may start to drop off. It’s not to say that these are not viable seeds that won’t grow into healthy plants. They will. You just may need to sow more seeds than you think, as all will not germinate. See below for an easy way to test your seed’s viability.
  2. Variety/Type of seed — Certain varieties of plants have a shorter seed life by nature and are best used within one year. Examples of some short-lived seeds are: asters, delphinium, leeks, onions, parsley, parsnip, and phlox. While other plants have quite a long shelf life, like: basil, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, chard, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, pumpkin, radish, squash, tomatoes and zinnias. Even within the same vegetable, you may encounter different germination rates for different varieties. Pelleted seed is best used within one year, as the pelleting process can reduce the seed’s longevity.
  3. Storage — Now this is key! Saving your seed properly is the first step towards your best germination success for next growing season. Unused seeds should be stored in a cool, dry location (ideal temperature of 50ºF at 50 percent humidity). Any exposure to heat, sun, or humidity can greatly lessen the seed’s viability. For home gardeners, your best storage bet is to put your seeds in a sealed glass container (must be moisture-proof) and store in your freezer or refrigerator. You can even tuck some rice in the bottom of your seed jars to help wick away any potential moisture. Properly stored seed can outlive their estimated viability by many, many years. A quick note: when taking your seed jars out of the refrigerator, allow them to come to room temperature before opening. This helps keep any potential condensation from forming.

And good storage isn’t just long-term, it’s your every day use of your seed packets when you’re outside sowing. I’ve been guilty of forgetting a packet or two of seeds out in the greenhouse (or sometimes, even right out on a garden bed). What I learned the hard way was, that by doing that, I damaged their probability of germinating by exposing them to high temperatures, sun and humidity.

  Sprouted Seeds on a napkin

While age, variety and storage are the main three factors, there are a few other items that can come into play for certain seeds to be able to germinate:

  • 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 tough for the 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, scarifying it, basically creating an opening for the seedling to emerge through.
  • 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 can just be placed in the refrigerator for a few weeks prior to sowing.

  Seed packet, marker, napkin, and plastic back on a table

When in doubt, test it out!

Your seeds definitely may have a little more kick in them than this list says, especially if stored properly.

Do a germination test to check your seed’s viability:

    1. Fold a dampened paper towel in half.
    2. Take 10 seeds & place on the damp towel.
    3. Fold the towel over the seeds & place in a zip lock bag in a warm location.
    4. After 3-5 days, open the bag and take a peek to see what’s germinated. Some varieties may take up to 10 days depending on the temperature and the type of seed, but this will give you a good gauge of how your seeds are doing. 

 

If the germination rate is down, but there is still viability, simply sow those seeds out in the garden at a heavier rate, knowing that not all may germinate.

  Sprouted Seeds on a napkin on a table

Below is a listing of the approximate life span of vegetable, herb, and flower seeds when stored properly. This is just an estimate. Many seeds have been viable for much longer, while some a bit shorter. It’s best practice to do a quick viability test to check your germination rate prior to planting when using older seed.

 

VEGETABLES:

Asparagus - 3 years

Beans - 3 years

Beet - 4 years

Broccoli - 4 years

Brussels Sprouts - 4 years

Cabbage - 4 years

Carrot - 3 years

Cauliflower - 4 years

Celery - 3 years

Chard, Swiss - 4 years

Chicory - 4 years

Chinese Cabbage - 3 years

Corn, Sweet - 2 years

Cucumber - 5 years

Eggplant - 3 years

Endive - 5 years

Kale - 4 years

Leek - 2 years

Lettuce - 4 years

Melon - 5 years

Mustard - 4 years

Okra - 2 years

Onion - 1 year

Parsnip - 1 year

Pea - 3 years

Pepper - 3 years

Pumpkin - 4 years

Radish - 4 years

Rutabaga - 4 years

Spinach - 2 years

Squash - 4 years

Tomato - 5 years

Turnip - 4 years

Watermelon - 4 years

 

HERBS:

Anise - 3 years

Basil- 5-7 years

Calendula - 3 years

Catnip - 5 years

Chives - 1 year

Cilantro - 5-7 years

Dill - 3 years

Fennel - 4 years

Lavender - 5 years

Oregano - 2 years

Parsley - 1 year

Sage - 3 years

Savory - 3 years

Thyme - 3 years

 

Flowers:

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

Ageratum - 4 years

Alyssum - 4 years

Amaranth - 4 years

Aster - 1 year

Baby’s Breath - 2 years

Bachelor’s Button - 3 years

Calendula - 5 years

Celosia - 4 years

Clarkia - 2 years

Coleus - 2 years

Columbine - 2 years

Cosmos - 3 years 

Dahlia - 2 years

Daisy - 3 years

Delphinium - 1 year

Dianthus - 4 years

Foxglove - 2 years

Geranium - 1 year

Hibiscus - 3 years

Hollyhock - 3 years

Impatiens - 2 years

Larkspur - 1 year

Lobelia - 3 years

Lupine - 2 years

Marigold - 2 years

Nasturtium - 5 years

Nicotiana - 3 years

Pansy - 2 years

Petunia - 3 years

Phlox - 1 year

Poppy - 4 years

Salvia - 1 year

Snapdragon - 3 years

Sweet Pea - 3 years

Verbena - 1 year

Zinnia - 5 years

 

Happy germinating!


30 Responses

Suzanne devoty
Suzanne devoty

February 11, 2019

I have been saving seeds for a long time and I enjoyed your article on germination rate. I’ve had good success in saving seeds in my pill bottles. The important thing is making sure the seeds are totally dry.

Kim
Kim

February 06, 2019

I just want to say that even if a seed is supposedly too old to germinate, TRY IT ANYWAY. I just had success planting some Blue Boy cornflower seeds that I had from 19 years ago!!! I got huge beautiful plants and flowers. It is always worth a shot vs. just throwing them away. That is the biggest long-term germination success story I have ever had. They’ve just been in an envelope in a box all these years.

David McAden
David McAden

February 01, 2019

Very good and informative article! I would like to share an experience I had last year (2018) with some tomato seeds. (SORRY FOR THE LENGTH!). In 2005, I accidentally crossed two heirloom tomatoes by placing them too close to each other. Not knowing this had happened, the following spring I planted seeds I had saved from Arkansas Traveler, a red-fruited variety. When they started ripening in late spring, they were yellow early on, turning orange when fully ripe. The other parent variety of the hybrid was Garden Peach, a smaller yellowish tomato that readily shares its pollen with any nearby variety. I liked the flavor of the new hybrid so much, I saved seeds each year and got the yellow-orange fruit until 2017, when the seeds were more reddish in color. So I looked through my stores tomato seeds and found some from 2006. I planted them and was surprised these 12-year old seeds germinated and produced the wonderful yellow-orange fruit I wanted! So, I can honestly say that, if stored properly, tomato seeds can remain viable for at least 12 years.

Nancy
Nancy

January 30, 2019

Great article! I definitely will be printing for reference Not a cheapskate when ordering seeds, but when you have tons of lettuce or carrot seeds leftover you drag your feet What I’ve done is sow seeds in the fall (live in FL) while waiting for catalog and new seeds Also wrecking seeds? I’ve put some through the washer and dryer forgetting in pocket!

Pinetree Garden Seeds
Pinetree Garden Seeds

January 24, 2019

Hi Sandy! Yes seeds from your garden should have similar germination expectancy and you can use the same process to test them. Thanks for the question!

Pinetree Garden Seeds
Pinetree Garden Seeds

January 22, 2019

Hi Ruth! Great question! The information was sourced from Cornell University, University of Maine, MOGFA, and around 10 different university cooperative extensions from across the country (Perdue, U of Illinois, etc…).

Cynthia Sabatini
Cynthia Sabatini

January 22, 2019

Great article! Very informative with practical information. Thanks!

Doris Buxbaum
Doris Buxbaum

January 22, 2019

Thank very helpful information, wrote it all down on an index card for latr use.

Colleen
Colleen

January 22, 2019

Oh thank you Allison and Pinetree!
This info is so good to have on hand…I’m a seed hoarder and now have general rules to go by. Hesitant to try old seed AND hesitant to throw away. What a pickle you helped me out of!

Susan Sullivan
Susan Sullivan

January 22, 2019

Allison, this is a great informative article, I am going to forward this to my other seed starting friends. As a long time seed starter it is helpful to have the list of the different “life expectancy” for many of the different seed types. When ordering seeds for the year this will be helpful in deciding which ones will probably still be viable from previous years.

Randy
Randy

January 22, 2019

This chart is an excellent guide. I am going to print it out and post it in my garden notebook.

Ruth Flescher
Ruth Flescher

January 22, 2019

Thank you for your listing. This information is often hard to come by and I appreciate the info. Your list is more comprehensive than any other I’ve come across. Can you tell us what your source is for this data on average seed life? I have found different answers from different sources and sometimes have a hard time judging which listing I should trust. I am a master gardener volunteer, and often share information on seed starting with others, so it’s essential that the information I share should be accurate. Thank you!

Denise Crie
Denise Crie

January 22, 2019

Thank you so much for this very informative explanation about seed culture! Now I will start pulling out my old seeds and give them a shot at new life!

Tim
Tim

January 22, 2019

If I’m using older seeds I will usually plant multiple seeds in each seed tray compartment. It will require a little thinning, but I am guaranteed of getting the number of end plants that I need.

Rick Nation
Rick Nation

January 22, 2019

Excellent information. It’s the #1 question people ask us.

GEORGE LAMBERT
GEORGE LAMBERT

January 22, 2019

Strange, since I would say parsley has been one of my longest viable seeds, both flat and curly. Currently using one that is 8 yrs old.

Sharon Redgrave
Sharon Redgrave

January 22, 2019

How interesting that this showed up in my email this morning, when just yesterday I sent a note to PineTree asking these very questions! Score! While my husband and I have had gardens for years, because of family issues, the last 2 years we have had none and I missed it so. But we still had seeds! This year will be the new garden, and I can’t wait, but needed to know what was still good, and what might not work so well. Thanks so much for such a comprehensive, tight refresher course. Happy Gardening!

Gillian Newman
Gillian Newman

January 22, 2019

This information is so helpful. I have often wondered if the seeds would still germinate after 1 year. I live on the Alabama Gulf Coast and have 2 growing seasons so I usually use all of the seeds.
This is the first time I have used Pinetree for seeds and I like their prices (much lower than other catalogues) as well as the information. Ordering on line was a breeze.
Thank you.

Randal James
Randal James

January 22, 2019

I have saved myself a lot of money over the years by placing my seed packets into a mason jar putting on the lid and storing it in my freezer. I do know that germination rates will fall so I do take that into consideration. I have seeds in my freezer that were purchased 5 years ago and that means that I will just have to allow for a poorer germination rate.

JB Reynolds
JB Reynolds

January 22, 2019

Greetings;

For many years I used to make an annual winter journey from my home in Sonoma County to a shop in Palo Alto (near Stanford University) called “Common Ground,” who sold a great variety of vegetable, herb and flower seeds a very low cost - because they were sold entirely in bulk. That is, you selected your desired seed from a pint- or quart-sized Mason jar on a shelf and doled out your portion with a teaspoon, half teaspoon, or whatever size was appropriate for that seed. Payment was per dole, usually something like 35¢! You were expected to provide your own container, and though they did have little paper envelopes for use, they were useless for long-term storage, and if they happened to get damp they were ruined.

I found a much better method. On the way down to Common Ground I would stop at any market or hardware store that featured a 1-Hour Photo service, and ask them about their used 35mm film capsules. Inevitably they had a huge sack of them, mostly the black Kodak capsules with the tight-fitting grey lids, and they were perfectly happy to give them to me. These things are ideal seed storage containers: totally inert plastic, light-tight, air-tight, moisture-tight, and easy to identify with a pen on bit of masking tape stuck to the lid. Kept in the refrigerator (not the freezer) they kept seeds in great shape for years!

The great tragedy has been that the world has wandered away from 35mm film and gone digital, but luckily these film caps seem to be almost indestructible so I’m still using the ones I collected a decade or longer in the past. Common Ground eventually went kaput so I’m obliged to buy my seed from the usual sources now (among them, Pinetree) but I still pour the seed from their paper packets into a labeled film cap, especially when the amount of seed is much greater than I can possibly use in my little garden.

Yrs.,

JB Reynolds

Gabriele Niederauer
Gabriele Niederauer

January 22, 2019

Great information, thanks so much.

Nancy Hickok
Nancy Hickok

January 22, 2019

Thank you for such an informative explanation of the storing temperature and the list of how long seeds should last if stored properly. I have had great success with the seeds that I have purchased from Pinetree. Nancy

Glenn
Glenn

January 22, 2019

Great post, thanks for the helpful information!

Peter M
Peter M

January 22, 2019

Excellent advice!

ctbenjamin
ctbenjamin

January 22, 2019

Thanks so much for this helpful list! Saving for future reference..

Suzanne Lussier
Suzanne Lussier

January 22, 2019

Great guidelines! Thanks!

William A Simmons
William A Simmons

January 22, 2019

Great advise I too have used older seed with great success. Some varieties produce their own seed. Care must be taken to use heirloom plants if you use their seed. After 50 plus years of gardening I still learn new methods and love trying new technology’s. Keep up the good work. Bill

Sandy
Sandy

January 24, 2019

Will seeds that have been saved from the fruit/vegetables from the garden germinate in the same way and for as long as your blog says?

Rick Mammel
Rick Mammel

January 22, 2019

Thanks SO much for this post. I have shared this info on the local gardening site I started some years ago. It saves a heap of time looking up the information on each plant type, also saving folks money, natch. Getting started gardening can be very discouraging for folks on limited budgets. Pinetree Garden Seeds tends to have more reasonable prices than many or even most companies, reliable seeds, and a staff that is so very helpful if you have any questions. I have been hooked, even addicted to Pinetree Garden Seeds for some years. Their catalog of seeds they offer is heaped with excellent information and a broad selection of plants. There are some other companies that are also very good, but usually more spendy.

cindy hollis
cindy hollis

January 22, 2019

I have been a gardener for years I think it came from my mother and grandmother love to see anything grow and to keep learning as I go
This was a good thing to get information on I save my seeds from year to year everything from flowers to vegetables and herbs.
Thank you for the information

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