Can Old Vegetable and Flower Seeds Still Be Planted?
The Spruce / Lacey Johnson
Seed packets you purchase often contain more seeds than you can plant in one season, and over time you may have many partial packets of seeds without knowing just how old they really are. You might rightly wonder if they will germinate (sprout) again if you plant them. Do seeds go bad with time, or can you plant them no matter how old they are?
The answer is, yes, seeds will eventually go bad and no longer germinate, but it can take quite a long time. There is a good chance that those old seed packets will have a high percentage of seeds that will germinate just fine. Most seeds, though not all, will keep for at least three years while maintaining a decent percentage of germination. And even a group of very old seeds may have 10 or 20 percent that still sprouts.
Your old seeds will stand the best chance of germinating if they have been stored correctly. All seeds will store most effectively in cool and dry conditions, so you should be wary of any seeds that are stored in opposite conditions—warm and moist. When you examine seeds, discard the entire packet if they show signs of mold or another fungus.
Many commercial seed packets may have a “use by” date printed on them. Don’t take this date too seriously—the seed manufacturers use this date to ensure that customers experience a large percentage of germination, and many seeds may remain viable for many years after the date printed on the packet. But the printed date will give you a sense of how old the seed packet is. If you are only a year or two beyond this date, there’s a good chance most of the seeds will still germinate when planted. But if the seed pack is six years old or more, expect to have a much lower percentage of germination.
Going forward, proper storage procedure is to date the seed packet when you buy it, to ensure that you’ll know exactly how old it is when you reach for it in the future. If possible, store the seeds in a sealed plastic bag containing a desiccant packet (those small packets that often come in over-the-counter medicine products), which will keep the seeds dry. If you don’t have desiccant, packets of dry rice or powdered milk will also absorb air moisture. The sealed seeds can be stored in the refrigerator or another cool place, but don’t freeze them.
Average Shelf Life of Some Common Seeds
Here are some estimated shelf life figures from Oregon State Cooperative Extension, based on research. Be aware, though, that even in seed packets much older than this, some of the seeds may still sprout.
- Bush and pole beans: two years
- Beets: two years
- Brussels sprouts: three to five years
- Cabbage: three to five years
- Cauliflower: three to five years
- Carrots: three years
- Collard: three to five years
- Kale: three to five years
- Kohlrabi: three to five years
- Corn: one year
- Cucumbers: three years
- Leeks, onions: two to three years
- Lettuce: three years
- Melons: three years
- Oriental greens: three years
- Parsley: two years
- Parsnips: one year
- Peas: two years
- Peppers: two years
- Radishes: four years
- Rutabagas: three years
- Spinach: one season
- Squashes: three to four years
- Swiss chard: two years
- Tomatoes: three years
- Turnips: four years
- Annual flowers: one to three years
- Perennial flowers: up to four years
Is There a Way to Test Seeds for Viability?
Seeds gradually lose viability as they age, so a packet that begins with a 90 percent viability rating on the packet may, after three or four years, have a much lower viability rate. A simple seed viability test, done by placing a small group of seeds on a damp paper towel to see how many sprouts, can tell you roughly how many of the seeds in the packet will be viable when planted.
If you have a group of seeds you’re not sure about, you can still plant them, but space them with greater density than you would for fresh seeds. Even if only 30 or 40 percent of the seeds germinate, you can still have a successful planting.
Can I Save My Own Seeds From the Plants I Grow?
Saving and starting your own herb, vegetable, and flower seeds is a great way to garden for just pennies each year. Be aware, though, that seeds collected from hybrid plants may not “come true” from the seeds produced. You can still save the seeds, and those seeds will still sprout into seedlings, but it is likely that the mature plants will demonstrate different characteristics than the plants from which you took the seeds. This is because hybrid plants are created by cross-pollinating different parent varieties, and their seeds do not carry the full genetic information. This isn’t always a bad thing. You may actually find that tomatoes from saved seeds, for example, are tastier than the hybrids, although they may not look as perfect. Flowers seeds saved from hybrid plants may produce some unusual and interesting offspring.
If you save seeds from vegetables and fruit you grow yourself, store them in the same way that you save seed packets—in dry and cool conditions.
Learn how to save your seeds for future planting to save pennies in your garden, as they can last many years before losing viability.
Planting Old Seeds – Can You Use Out-Of-Date Seeds?
It happens to all gardeners. We tend to go a bit hog wild in the spring, buying way too many seeds. Sure, we plant a few, but then we throw the rest in a drawer and next year, or even many years later, we find them and wonder about the possibility of planting old seeds. Is it a waste of time germinating old seeds?
Can You Use Out-of-Date Seeds?
The simple answer is planting old seeds is possible and okay. No harm will come from using old seeds. The flowers or fruit that come from out-of-date seeds will be of the same quality as if they were grown from fresh seeds. Using seeds from old vegetable seed packets will produce vegetables that are just as nutritious as those from current season seeds.
The question is not so much about using old seeds, but rather your chances of germinating old seeds.
How Long Will Old Seeds Stay Viable?
In order for a seed to germinate, it must be viable, or alive. All seeds are alive when they come from their mother plant. There is a baby plant in every seed and, as long as it is alive, the seed will grow even if they are technically out-of-date seeds.
Three major things affect a seed’s viability:
- Age – All seeds stay viable for at least a year and most will be viable for two years. After the first year, the germination rates for out-of-date seeds will start to fall.
- Type – The type of seed can affect how long a seed stays viable. Some seeds, like corn or peppers, will have a hard time surviving past the two year mark. Some seeds, like beans, peas, tomatoes, and carrots, can stay viable as long as four years. Seeds like cucumber or lettuce can stay viable up to six years.
- Storage conditions – Your old vegetable seed packets and flower packets will have a much better chance of keeping their seeds viable if they are stored well. Seeds will stay viable much longer if stored in a cool, dark place. Your produce drawer in the refrigerator is a good choice for storage.
Regardless of the date on your seed packet, germinating old seeds is worth a shot. Using old seeds is a great way to make up for last year’s excesses.
It happens to all gardeners. We plant a few seeds then throw the rest in a drawer, finding them later and wondering if they're still good. Is it a waste of time germinating old seeds? Read here to find out.