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How to Check for Seed Viability (Video)

Use our seed viability test to make sure you get the most from your saved seeds every year.

By Kale Roberts

Are My Garden Vegetable Seeds Still Good?

You are a little too good at saving seeds at the end of the garden season; now you have drawers full of past years’ seeds. But are your old seeds still good for planting this year? Take a look at the expiration date first. According to Iowa State University, the life expectancy of vegetable seeds is as follows:

1 Year — Onion, parsley, parsnip, salsify
2 Years — Sweet corn, leeks, okra, pepper
3 Years — Asparagus, beans, broccoli, carrots, celeria, celery, Chinese cabbage, Kohlabi, spinach, peas
4 Years — Beets, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Swiss chard, chicory, eggplant, fennel, kale, mustard, pumpkin, rutabaga, squash, tomato, turnip, watermelon
5 Years — Collards, cucumber, endive, muskmelon, radish
6 Years — Lettuce

Perform a Seed Viability Test

You Will Need:

  • Sealable plastic sandwich bags
  • Paper towels or coffee filters
  • Cup of water
  • Sunny window

When in doubt, test seeds out! Moisten the paper towel or coffee filter. Fold 10 seeds into the towel or filter. Seal the paper seed-filled towel in a zipper bag and then be sure to mark the bag to identify the seeds. Place the bag in a location where the temperature is around 70 degrees. (We test exactly 10 seeds because easily correlates to a percentage. If 8 seeds sprout, you will know you have about 80 percent viability for that particular plant variety.)

Wait  7-10 days. Be sure the paper towel or filter does not dry out during this time. Count the number of seeds which germinate and calculate the percentage. If less than 70 to 90 percent (less than 7 of your 10 tested seeds) have germinated, then planting with those seeds would not be worth the effort. If 70 to 90 percent have germinated, use them but sow them thickly. Performing seed viability tests makes seed saving a less risky endeavor.

More on Seed Viability from MOTHER EARTH NEWS

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Post a comment below.


4/17/2015 11:05:40 AM
Thanks Kale. What's a good viability percentage? Knowing that even with new seeds, you don't get 100% sprouting. Lindsey

2/26/2015 5:13:29 PM
Thank you, Kale! (Great name, by the way!) Very good info to know. You presented in such a way, I know I can do this instead of finding out I went to all the work to learn it AFTER the seeds don't sprout! Common sense tells me to label, so no worries there. I'll watch for more info from you in the future! Think Green!

1/12/2014 5:23:26 PM
Thank you Kale for this video. I am similar questions than Barbara and BradK: do we need special lightning for some seeds and can we re-use those seeds who do germinate by planting them in plastic cells? Thank you for replying!

1/10/2014 10:03:06 AM
This is so great. All these years of gardening it never occurred to me to do this, gr8 for seeds even new that you purchase because you go thru all this work expecting it to grow because you just bought it, and v. little comes up, so at least you know to seed heavily. Question though, some seeds need light to germ and some actuall need dark. Some need 60 degrees temps and some don't, so its not as simplistic as you represent here. Is there more info somewhere on these parameters?

1/10/2014 9:50:51 AM
This seems to skip a vital step -- *label* the silly bags. Especially if you have more than one packet of a variety, or several varieties of the same vegetable (flower, etc.). Also -- can the sprouts be used, or must they be discarded? I have used cell type seed starters, putting three seeds from the same packet in three adjacent cells, with a label stake. When the cells sprout, if they do, I can get an indication of viability, and I can divide the cells to give each sprout an individual cell to develop in. This is for seed that I start early, or will use for succession plantings. Nine seeds give me multiples of 11% estimates of viability -- quite close enough for my use. Doubling the started seeds would make sense when the crops are important or large, and for plants too early to transplant to the garden, I have some larger cell flats to hold them for another month or so.

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