by Matt Gibson
Ready to learn all about the seeds you use in your garden? We’re here to help you find out how long you can expect seeds to last, how to test seeds to find out whether they’ve expired, and how to store them for the longest life. We’ve also explained the difference between organic, hybrid, and heirloom seeds to clear up any confusion.
Sometimes it seems that gardeners seem to shy away from growing their plants from seed, choosing instead to purchase seedlings from their local nursery. This might be because growing from seeds can seem like a challenging task that has a lower success rate than using already established seedlings. Starting with seedlings is no doubt easier and probably less stressful way to kick off a growing season. However, seed starting is much easier than most people think, and is the most cost effective way to get your garden going strong.
Do Garden Seeds Get Old or Go Bad?
Everything deteriorates with time, especially when exposed to high temperature and humidity environments. Seeds are no different, whether you can find an expiration date on your seed package or not. Generally, most seeds that have been in storage for a year or less have not expired. If your seeds have been in storage for a long period of time, or if they were left out in the elements, try a germination test to see if they are still in good enough shape to use. We’ll explain how to do that later in this article.
What Brand of Seeds Are Best?
There are all kinds of ways to procure seeds, so you won’t always want to judge a book by its cover. Some gardeners save the seeds their plants produce to use again in future growing seasons, and you may get some seeds from other gardeners that have been saved this way as a gift or in trade. Of course, without knowing how the person who you get your seeds from has collected and stored them, it will be hard to know how good the seeds are until you give them a try.
However, when you purchase seeds from sellers on the internet or from seed companies, there are ways to determine which ones you can count on. For individual sellers who may have small companies or be collecting their own seeds, you can take a look at the ratings and reviews other customers have left to give you an idea of how viable the seeds will be. This is true for some large seed companies as well, or there are other ways to determine which brands of seeds you can trust.
There are plenty of articles on the internet rating and ranking the best brands of seeds in all kinds of categories. You can find recommendations for the best vegetable seeds, the best heirloom seeds, or the best organic or non-GMO seeds out there with a simple Google search.
Where Is The Best Place To Buy Seeds?
With so much information out there, it can be hard to know the best places to buy seeds for your garden. As we mentioned above, you can take a look at a company’s ratings and reviews at Garden Watchdog to get an idea of the experiences other customers have had. You can also check online forums where gardeners trade recommendations for where they’ve found seeds that worked well for them. Here’s a roundup of companies you can buy from and exchanges you can use that are commonly recommended in articles online. (But don’t count out trades, small companies or individual sellers, or seeds you find at a local nursery or the farmer’s market.)
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
- Ferry Morse
- Home Depot
- Johnny’s Seeds
- Lowe’s Garden Center
- R.H. Shumway
- Rare Seeds
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Seeds of Change
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Sustainable Seed Company
- Territorial Seed Company
How Long Do Seeds Last For Planting?
Seed packets should be printed with the year for which they’re intended. For example, they might say “packed in 2019.” Generally, you can trust an opened packet of seeds up to a year, and unopened packages of seeds can last longer than that. There are also variations in shelf life among different types of seeds. For example, onion seeds rarely last longer than a year, but lettuces may last five years or more. This article from the Farmer’s Almanac has a table that can show you how many years to expect your seeds to last depending on what they’ll grow.
To determine how good your seeds are when they’re more than a couple of years old, you can conduct a simple germination test. Moisten a paper towel and fold your sample seeds inside, then slip it into a plastic sandwich bag. Do not zip the top of the bag closed. Label the front of the bag with the seed type, then let your test run by allowing the seeds to sit inside the sandwich bag in the warmest spot in your house. Begin checking after five days, taking a look daily to check for sprouting. Viable seeds should start growing by the tenth day. If fewer than one third of your test seeds sprout, you’ll probably want to go ahead and replace your stock.
What Is The Best Way To Store Seeds?
When taken care of properly, seeds can last a few years. How long seeds will last depends on how they were stored and how the conditions changed. The USDA recommends a room with low humidity and temperature (where the temperature and relative humidity added together do not exceed 100). You can use a combination hydrometer and thermometer tool to find the best room in your house to keep seeds lasting a long time. An airtight glass container, like a jar, is the safest way to store seeds for extended life. You can even add some of the moisture-wicking packets of silica material you find in shoes or vitamins to help keep things fresh.
What’s the Difference Between Organic Seeds, Hybrid, and Heirloom Seeds?
To be declared organic, seeds must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture. This certification means the seeds have been prepared according to the organic guidelines, using natural pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, and other treatments. Basically, organic seeds have been prepared without the use of chemicals. Organic seeds also are not genetically modified, so seeds labeled organic are automatically non-GMO.
However, organic seeds can also be hybrids, and hybridization isn’t a process that depends entirely on Mother Nature. Artificial cross-pollination techniques are used to create the hybrid varieties so they’ll be resistant to threats from insects or the climate, produce the highest yields, and have other benefits. That said, hybrid seeds are still grown without the use of chemicals when they’re organic.
Heirloom seeds are a different thing entirely. Seeds labeled heirloom have been passed down for generations (like a family heirloom). They use open-air pollination, allowing pollinators and Mother Nature to be responsible for their evolution over time instead of using cross-pollination like hybrids do. There’s no concern with heirloom seeds of using GMO ingredients, either, so they’re naturally non-GMO. To qualify as heirloom, seeds must have at least a 40-year history.
Although many heirloom seeds may be organic, an heirloom variety is not guaranteed to have been grown under organic guidelines. You’ll most often get heirloom seeds from seed exchanges or other gardeners. While hybrid seeds are produced to be resistant to certain threats, you’ll often find that heirloom varieties have ended up with their own resistances that make them valuable. For example, an heirloom variety from a certain location may have evolved to flourish in that climate. Or heirloom varieties that have faced certain insect or disease threats may have naturally developed a resistance to those threats over time. With heirloom seeds, the natural evolution process replaces the calculated intention of cross-pollinated hybrids.
Want to learn more about types of seeds and what they all mean? We have an even more extensive article about the difference between types of seeds here.
With so much to know about seeds, it’s no wonder there are so many varieties and classifications. The questions and answers in this article should have cleared those up for you. In addition, now you’re ready to do germination testing, determine how long seeds are viable, and store your seeds to get the most bang for your buck in this growing season and those ahead.