Heirloom Expert: Life of Seeds

Will your old seeds still produce a crop? If stored properly, many seeds can remain viable for decades.

Seeds in Hand

Many seeds will remain viable for decades if stored properly in a cool, dry place.

Photo by Karen K. Will

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I have some seeds from Baker Creek that date back to 2008; they have been stored in a cool basement since then. Are they still good? Can you give some guidelines on keeping seeds? Does it differ depending on the vegetable?

I just found a few packets of seeds I’d misplaced from a trip to Baker Creek a couple years ago. I planted the ‘Tall Telephone’ peas in the spring and will plant some of the greens through the summer.

Any seeds whose germination is suspect can easily be tested. Count out 10 seeds and fold them into a moist paper towel. Put the seeds and paper towel into a Ziploc bag and close the bag. Store the closed bag somewhere warm and in an obvious spot that won’t be forgotten.

In a week or so, depending on the variety, see how many seeds germinate. If more than 50 percent sprout, then they are fine to plant. If less, I put them in the compost pile and, with a little luck, will have a few compost surprise seedlings.

Seeds are living breathing organisms, so when kept cool and dry they will last longer.

Many seeds will remain viable for decades, if stored properly. My basement is filled with half-used packets stored in Mason jars. In the bottom of each jar is some silica gel, which keeps the humidity low and the seeds dry. Silica gel can be found at craft stores and it’s often used to dry flowers.

Most seeds store well, but others, like onion and spinach, are better used the first season after saving. Even though I’ve got a basement filled with seeds, I still can’t resist ordering something different and new for each season.


Doug is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Backyard Gardener (www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug) and co-host of The Organic Gardeners radio program on KDKA.