Don’t throw away last year’s seeds!

The seed catalogs are rolling in and piling up fast and as I surveyed my index card files crammed with seed packets I began to wonder about seed viability from year to year. I went to the library and got a few books and while I was checking them out, I mentioned to the volunteer what I was after; namely seed viability information. She said, “oh, I think they’re like over the counter medication…they say that they’ll expire but really, I think they last forever.” Hmmm, rather dubious, if you ask me but she’s got a point. Seed packets usually state the year in which they were packed or, misleadingly phrased as “Packed for 2009”, which leads one to think that they might have a shelf-life of a year or so. I wanted to get to the bottom of this.

I realize that this may not be important to non-organic gardeners who purchase their seeds at their local garden center. If the seed doesn’t germinate, they can always go and get a new packet. For gardeners who are concerned about GMO’s (genetically modified seed) and want to use organic seed, or those who want to grow unusual or heirloom varieties, this isn’t a reliable option. If the seed doesn’t germinate, you’ll need to place another mail order and that will involve valuable time (as well as the possibility that your choice has been Sold Out).

I may not store my seeds under optimal conditions (dark and cold) but I come pretty close and I wanted to get to the bottom of this.  I prepared an inventory of the seeds I have, including variety name and date packed (this is 8 pages long). I then did my research and prepared a list of the plants I grow and the length of time, in years, in which the seed will be viable if stored under perfect conditions. Wow! I was shocked to learn how much money I had potentially wasted over the years ordering fresh seed when I had plenty of year old seed in stock. I share the fruits of my labors below:

Garden Seed Viability (in Years)

Artichoke        7yrs     50% germination
Beans            4 yrs    50%
Beets            6 yrs    50%
Broccoli        5 yrs
Broccoli di Raab    5 yrs.
Cabbage
Savoy        4 yrs.
Red        4 yrs.
Pac Choi    5 yrs.
Cantaloupe        5 yrs.
Cardoon        7 yrs.
Carrots            3 yrs.
Cauliflower        5 yrs.
Celery            8 yrs.    50%
Celeriac        8 yrs.    50%
Corn (Sweet)        3 yrs.    50%
Cucumbers        10 yrs
Eggplant        7 yrs    50%
Endive (Witloof)    8 yrs
Fennel (Bulbing)    4 yrs    50%
Kale            4 yrs.
Kohlrabi        4 yrs.
Leeks            3 yrs.    50%
Lettuce        3 yrs.
Melons
Watermelon    6 yrs.
Muskmelon    5 yrs
Mustard Greens    5 yrs.
Okra            5 yrs.    50%
Parsnips        1 yr.
Peas            3 yrs.    50%
Peppers        3 yrs.    50%
Radishes        5 yrs.
Spinach        5 yrs.    50%
Squash
Summer    6 yrs.
Winter        6 yrs.
Swiss Chard?
Beet family    6 yrs.?
Tomatoes        4  10 yrs.
Turnips        5 yrs.

Herb Seed Viability
Basil        5 yrs.
Dill        5 yrs.
Fennel        4 yrs.
Parsley        3 yrs.
Shiso (Perilla)    5 yrs.
Chervil        3 yrs.

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