Gardening Saving seed Sowing Seeds

Test Old Seeds Before You Sow

Most seeds are able to germinate at least 2 to 3 years after harvest if they have been kept dry and not too hot; some in fact are good for 7 years or more. (For a list of seeds of some 150 common garden plants and their normal conservation time under home conditions, see Are Last Year’s Seeds Still Good?). 

But what gardener has never found an old pack of seeds left in some forgotten corner, seeds you suddenly want to try again? But if you sow them and they don’t come up, you’ve wasted pots full of sowing mix or space in the garden and lots of time. Isn’t there are way to test the germination of older seeds before you actually sow them?

Fortunately, there is. And it’s very easy to do.

Quick and Easy Germination Test

A few weeks before the intended sowing date, place ten seeds on a piece of moistened paper towel and fold the paper in half, covering the seeds. Now, place the folded paper inside a clear plastic bag, seal it and move it to a warm location. After 3–21 days (depending on the type of seed), you should have germination … if the seeds are indeed still alive.

More than 7 seeds germinated, so these seeds are still fully viable. Photo:
  • If 7 or more seeds germinate, the seeds are still in very good condition and you can sow them as usual. 
  • If 4 to 6 seeds germinate, their germination is below par, but still reasonable: sow them twice as thickly as you would normally. 
  • If 3 seeds or fewer germinate, the seeds are well past their prime and, unless the variety is irreplaceable, sowing them will probably not be worthwhile, as the seedlings will probably germinate at an even lower rate in soil. Besides, even if they do come up, weak seeds tend to produce feeble or unhealthy plants. Time to get out and buy fresh seed!

Article originally published on February 2, 2015. 

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

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