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Ask a (Local) Master Gardener: How long do seeds last?

  • A pea seed germinating. Wikimedia Commons image

For the Gazette
Published: 2/14/2020 10:18:02 AM
Modified: 2/14/2020 10:17:50 AM

Q: I have many partially used packets of vegetable and herb seeds in my refrigerator from the past two years. My mailbox is full of catalogues, tempting me to buy more. How long do seeds remain healthy? Do I throw out the old? Please help me decide.
—Sarah Bachrach, Northampton

A: Your questions got me digging into my stash of seeds left over from last spring’s ambitious dreams of homegrown harvests while pondering the same question. The good news for you is you wisely stored them in your refrigerator’s coolness. This boosts their likelihood of continued viability.

Typically, most unused seeds stored in a cool (below 50 degrees F), dark, dry location can be successfully planted the next year. Packets should be in an airtight, watertight container, such as a canning jar.

It sounds like you have some unused seeds that are one year old and some that are two years old. How long do they stay healthy and do you throw out the old? That depends. Here is an easy way to test your seeds’ viability:

First, for each seed packet you want to test, dampen a paper towel with water and place 10 seeds on it. Seeds should not touch each other.

Next, fold the towel and place it in a plastic bag labeled with the seed’s name and the test’s start date so you can easily identify which seeds are in the bag and correctly time your test.

Then, place the bag in a warm spot, ideally by a sunny window.

After 10 days, check your seed samples for signs of sprouting. You will need to unwrap the paper to do so.

How many sprouted? If fewer than half sprouted, it is time to buy fresh seeds. If none sprouted, double check the number of “days to germinate” listed on the seed’s packet. Some, like High Mowing brand’s Bangles Blend Sweet Pepper seeds I purchased last year, take 10 – 14 days to germinate. I am testing them now. If I don’t see anything by day 10, I will give them until day 14. Some vegetables, such as carrots, can take a while to germinate.

Numerous seeds last two to five years. A few exceptions include parsley, parsnip and onion. Purchase them new each year. Check the website of the related seed company and search on “seed viability” or similar terms for more detailed information about your specific seed.

If any of your seeds are mushy or moldy, throw them and their packet out.

Read your seed packets thoroughly. They contain a host of useful information. Review the fine print. Botanical Interests, for example, even prints details on the inside of their seed packets to help educate their gardening customers.

Check out upcoming Seed Swaps for more seed-related information. Grow Food Northampton’s March 7 Garden Day celebration at Forbes Library in Northampton will have one as part of their event.

Thank you for your timely questions, Sarah, and thanks for asking a (local) Master Gardener.

Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at One question will be selected and answered per week.

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