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Successes/failures with using old seeds?

January 2, 2011

Hi, I have a lot of leftover seed packets, many unopened, that I'm going to try to WS this year. Am I setting myself up for disappointment?

Comments (18)

  • countrycarolyn

    Well some seeds do not matter how old they are.

    The question I would ask is how were they stored?? If a seed is stored in a way that there is not significant temperature fluctuations or not to damp where the seeds are sitting in moisture. Then I think the seeds would be good to go.

    I have used seeds that were at least 4 to 5 years old. I sowed a little heavy thinking germination would be low, and I had to give seedlings away!!

  • terrene

    I routinely use old seeds - the basil, parsley, and tomato seeds I've used for the past 3 years were all packed for 1997/98 - yes that's 12 years old - and they still sprout abundantly. This is because I've been storing seeds in the refrigerator for over 20 years (and have on occasion sprouted seeds that were close to 20 years old too).

    William Cullina writes in his book on growing and propagating Wildflowers: "The other way to slow down the aging process of your seed is to refrigerate it. Metabolism involves chemical reactions that are greatly slowed as the temperature is lowered to near freezing, and air-dried seed stored in paper envelopes in the refrigerator will stay viable 5 to 10 times as long as seed kept at room temperature."

    A cool dry place is good, if you don't have room in the refrigerator, but I don't think the seeds will last as long.

  • littleonefb

    I really depends on the type of seeds they are and if they have gotten really wet, not from humidity but actual water as well.

    I've gotten excellent germination from 20 year old commercial packets of the following seeds that I found in various drawers including kitchen drawers after she passed away.
    None of them where "properly stored", just dumped in various locations and some of them had been opened and some seeds sown.

    4 o'clocks
    snow peas
    garlic chives
    morning glory heavenly blue
    chinese forget me nots

    If you are really concerned, you can wet a paper towel, ring it out till it's moist, place seeds that you have in the paper towels (one kind in each paper towel. fold it over to keep the seeds in place and place the paper towel inside a ziplock baggie for a a few days.
    The baggie will keep the towel moist. After about 5-7 days, open the baggie and seed if there are any seeds that germinated.
    If not, you can put the towel back in the bagggie and wait a few more days to see if any germination took place.

    This can give you an idea if the seeds are still viable. You would want to try at least 5-10 seeds of each kind.

    If you just want to sow them, you have nothing to lose but some time and soil. The worst that happens is none of them germinate and the odds are that at least some, if not all of them, will be viable and germinate.

    If it where me, I would just go ahead and WS the seeds and see what happens. If they are seeds that I really want to have germinate, I would also buy or trade for some fresh ones as well and sow those.


  • gardenunusual

    A friend gave me really old seed this winter, and I have chosen to wintersow them. Tomatoes, huckleberry, blue chinese forget-me-nots, parsley, peppers. I tried the paper towel test, and didn't get any germination. I think because I put them near the window, might have needed darkness?

    Anyway, I figured, what do I have to lose? And it would be interesting to see what comes up. The tomato seeds were from 1998, 97.

    Hope yours germinates!

  • molanic

    I just read about this last night and it said that in most cases moisture is much more damaging to seeds than high temperatures. I don't have room to keep them in the fridge, so I put them all in a large divided plastic storage box and keep a bunch of silica gel packets I saved in with them. I also try to use them within 2-3 years, although I have had germination from 10 year old seed I found in a drawer.

    Here are a few tidbits from the book I just read:
    Between the temperatures of 32F and 112F, for every 9F that the storage temperature is lowered the seeds' period of viability will double. If you freeze seeds they should be very very dry. Dry seeds can withstand temperature extremes better. Moist seeds should be kept cool but not frozen. A good rule of thumb is that the temperature and relative humidity should add up to less than 100. So at 60% humidity the temp should not exceed 40F. To keep seeds dry one part silica gel to ten parts seed is usually sufficient for storage.
    More info than necessary, but I thought it was interesting. :)

  • countrycarolyn

    Molanic that is good reading!! I know some have argued with me when I have said I stored my seeds in my freezer.

    I guarantee that person will read this post though I will still never hear an apology!!!

  • terrene

    This is what Wikipedia says about the big international seed banks and how they store their seeds -

    "Seeds are dried to a moisture content of less than 6%. The seeds are then stored in freezers at -18 C (0 F) or below. Because seed DNA degrades with time, the seeds need to be periodically replanted and fresh seeds collected for another round of long-term storage."

    So apparently freezing temperatures are okay for storing seeds, except that I'm not sure it's possible to dry them to 6% moisture level in average home conditions. But if it works to throw them in a drawer, or in the freezer, then it works!

    The viability of the seeds not only depends on storage, but whether they were successfully pollinated, harvested at the right time, and dried properly.

  • countrycarolyn

    Good point Terrene!!

    How would one go about drying a seed like that?? I mean there are food dehydrators. I wonder if that would be more risky than what it is worth.

    I also wonder how dry a seed is by home use. I know I have stored seeds in my freezer for years, and germination rates were awesome some commercial and some that I saved.

  • morz8

    The exception to freezing seeds that is of little interest here in WS is tropicals - not all seeds for all tropicals can be frozen with damage - so maybe that's better left to the original forum where the question was asked.

    That same wikpedia article also says "By contrast, recalcitrant seeds are damaged by dryness and subzero temperature, and so must be continuously replanted to replenish seed stocks. Examples are the seeds of cocoa and rubber." Again, it doesn't really apply to most WS and not of interest to many here....

    Here is a link that might be useful: Production and Storage of recalcitrant seeds

  • countrycarolyn

    Speaking of whom!! Aren't annuals also considered tropical??

    I store ALL seeds in my freezer not just limited to perennials!!

  • countrycarolyn

    Oops let me reword that: arent some tropicals considered annuals??

    Annual means it lives one year it is subject to frost, same as a tropical. Tropicals can not withstand frost!!

    Though the seeds can be stored in the freezer of both, and from your post you do admit they can be stored.

  • morz8

    And I should have said - not all seeds for all tropicals can be frozen without damage.

    typo was 'not all seeds for all tropicals can be frozen with damage'. I'm sorry, I typed with, meant without - big difference.

  • terrene

    I have no idea how they would get the seeds that dry? Perhaps they do use a dehydrator of some sort. I keep my seeds in the fridge, where it doesn't seem to matter.

    Is recalcitrant another term for hydrophilic? Hydrophilic seeds, those that have an affinity for water and are intolerant of dry storage, would be another category that couldn't be stored dry in the freezer.

  • countrycarolyn

    From what I gather recalcitrant seeds start losing viability after 3 to 4 days of being collected during normal drying time. Though from what I read it looks like ones that need to retain moisture are in that group.

    If I am understanding the definition right recalcitrant is meaning they are difficult.

  • posskat

    i used the wet paper towel method to start old catnip seeds (well, about 4 yo). over half germinated quite quickly, and i planted them. they came up about an inch, had 2 sets of leaves, and a month has gone by, w/no change whatsoever! i used fresh soil from costco, which i've always had success with, and they got fertilized and had adequate sun and water. any ideas? last year they grew just fine.....

  • drippy

    Some success, some failure - some shorter viability seeds like annual asters and delphiniums - lettuce, too - I've had less success with. I'm not entirely convinced it's because the seeds are older; may be operator error, LOL. Hollyhocks and nasturtiums last forever, IMO. I don't throw seeds away - try 'em, you have nothing to lose but a little time - you can re-use the potting soil if they don't germinate.

  • northerner_on

    The oldest seeds I have had germinate are from red lupines. I collected these seeds myself in 1997 and had them stored in a film cannister. I 're-discovered' them and decided to try them before throwing them out. For three years in a row now, I've sown them, got good seedlings and planted them out but each time, the cats in the front garden have destroyed them. This last winter, I covered them with pop bottles and right now the two plants are in full bud. I am looking forward to the blooms.

  • Joshua Sonoma

    I found packs of seeds from 2003 that were still sealed and I've sprouted the basil without issue and the seedlings are growing. I haven't tried any of the other packs yet but there are tomato, cucumber, pumpkin, and other seeds which I'll try sprouting next week.

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