Frugal Gardening: Sowing Old Seeds

Some gardeners save “heirloom” and non-hybrid seed from special plants.  I don’t consider myself one of those conscientious gardeners, only rarely saving seed from some of my favorite perennials.  However, I often have packets of vegetable seeds leftover at the end of the season that I didn’t manage to use up or I bought on an impulse and never got around to planting.  Seed retailers and growers would like us gardeners to discard out of date seed packets and buy fresh seed each year.  It is good for business, but not my wallet.  I don’t discard seeds just because the printed date says they are expired.  When seed is saved under cool, dry storage conditions, it can have a longer life span.

A few weeks ago, I sowed the leftovers of a packet of 5 year old Buttercrunch lettuce seed.  I was expecting a 25% germination rate so I sowed them really densely.  Well, it sprouted with what I would estimate was a 90% or better germination rate, as you can see by the photo below.  The 3 year old burpless and marketmore cucumber seeds I sowed at the same time, also had an excellent germination rate, but not quite as high.  My daughter, B, actually considered doing her school science project this year on “how old is too old for seeds” since she and I sorted through all of our old partial packets in the garage a few months ago deciding what we needed to buy for this year.  However, she and I both ended up with chick fever back in early February and did the old wives tales project instead.

a photo of the newly sprouted cucumbers on the left and in the middle and lettuce on the far right

Are there any old seeds you have had success germinating, despite being “old?”  And how old were they? 

The following is a list I recorded sometime ago and saved for reference with the approximate period of time under proper storage conditions that vegetable seed should remain viable:

Short-lived (1-2 years):

  • corn
  • leek
  • onion
  • parsley
  • parsnip
  • rhubarb (doesn’t do well by me)
  • salsify (never tried it)

Moderate (3-5 years):

  • asparagus ( but when I grew them it was from 1 year old crowns)
  • pole and bush beans
  • broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  •  carrot
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • kale
  • lettuce
  • okra
  • peas
  • peppers
  • radish
  • spinach
  • turnip
  • watermelon

Long-lived (5+ years):

  • beet
  • cucumber
  • eggplant
  • cantaloupe
  • tomato

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