germination good from out of date seeds

Using out of date seeds

This year I haven’t been able to buy new seeds. Like many keen gardeners I’ve been forced to survey a huge box of out-of-date seeds and select from these.  But a few well chosen home-grown vegetables will help augment a lockdown diet and improve the flavour of tired shop-bought lettuce.

I’ve always known that it’s a bit of a myth that old seeds won’t germinate. There have been rumours of wheat seeds taken from the Pharos tombs re-sprouting after three thousand years and of Lotus seeds from 50,000 year old archaeological deposits germinating. The RHS reported in the early 50s that 100 year old seeds would germinate, albeit sparsely.

It is known that some seeds keep better than others, and that cool, airtight and dark locations will help maintain seeds. Some gardening books cite leguminous seeds, that have a hard casing as long-lived, while more delicate seeds like lettuces and carrots won’t last so well.

That would also suggest that seeds kept unopened in their packets might have a greater chance. Keep your seeds well and they will keep you well!

This year I planted out of date tomato, lettuce, radish, mizuna, peas, French and runner beans. I didn’t do anything special to them, though some books recommend all sorts of somersaults and hoops to go through before planting. The packets were between three and six years old. That means that some where only just past their sell-by dates. I also planted sweet peas, marigolds, clarkia and stocks which were well past their sell-by.

This wasn’t a carefully regimented scientific experiment. I can’t tell you what percentage of seeds came up. But I can tell you that while in some cases germination took a little longer than I would have expected, I got a good crop of healthy seedlings every time.

I’ve decided to be much more restrained in my seed buying next year (if we’re back to normal then). And I think my experiences have taught me a useful lesson about risk.

Brand new seed should be reliable, but even then 100% germination is unlikely. Some difficult seeds start off at 50% reliability, which is why it is common to place two seeds in each pot.

Similarly it is impossible to have 100% hygiene. All the efforts we go to are about reducing the risks to an acceptably low level. While we’re on lock-down those risks are kept very low. As we emerge we’re going to have to get used to understanding the levels of risks that are right for our particular situation.

I’m glad I experimented with those old seeds because it has helped me realise that aiming for perfection is futile. In gardening, as in life, good-enough is probably all we can aim for.

Four tips for germinating old seeds.

  1. Hard shell seeds will keep well, but may take longer to germinate and require regular watering.
  2. Sow suspect seeds more thickly.
  3. Sow a few extra seeds in a pot, so that you can back-fill any rows that are patchy.
  4. Soaking a few seeds on a damp flannel until they sprout may help you decide if they are viable.


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