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Can Old Vegetable and Flower Seeds Still Be Planted?

The Spruce / Lacey Johnson

Seed packets you purchase often contain more seeds than you can plant in one season, and over time you may have many partial packets of seeds without knowing just how old they really are. You might rightly wonder if they will germinate (sprout) again if you plant them. Do seeds go bad with time, or can you plant them no matter how old they are?

The answer is, yes, seeds will eventually go bad and no longer germinate, but it can take quite a long time. There is a good chance that those old seed packets will have a high percentage of seeds that will germinate just fine. Most seeds, though not all, will keep for at least three years while maintaining a decent percentage of germination. And even a group of very old seeds may have 10 or 20 percent that still sprouts.

Proper Storage

Your old seeds will stand the best chance of germinating if they have been stored correctly. All seeds will store most effectively in cool and dry conditions, so you should be wary of any seeds that are stored in opposite conditions—warm and moist. When you examine seeds, discard the entire packet if they show signs of mold or another fungus.

Many commercial seed packets may have a “use by” date printed on them. Don’t take this date too seriously—the seed manufacturers use this date to ensure that customers experience a large percentage of germination, and many seeds may remain viable for many years after the date printed on the packet. But the printed date will give you a sense of how old the seed packet is. If you are only a year or two beyond this date, there’s a good chance most of the seeds will still germinate when planted. But if the seed pack is six years old or more, expect to have a much lower percentage of germination.

Going forward, proper storage procedure is to date the seed packet when you buy it, to ensure that you’ll know exactly how old it is when you reach for it in the future. If possible, store the seeds in a sealed plastic bag containing a desiccant packet (those small packets that often come in over-the-counter medicine products), which will keep the seeds dry. If you don’t have desiccant, packets of dry rice or powdered milk will also absorb air moisture. The sealed seeds can be stored in the refrigerator or another cool place, but don’t freeze them.

Average Shelf Life of Some Common Seeds

Here are some estimated shelf life figures from Oregon State Cooperative Extension, based on research. Be aware, though, that even in seed packets much older than this, some of the seeds may still sprout.

  • Bush and pole beans: two years
  • Beets: two years
  • Broccoli:
  • Brussels sprouts: three to five years
  • Cabbage: three to five years
  • Cauliflower: three to five years
  • Carrots: three years
  • Collard: three to five years
  • Kale: three to five years
  • Kohlrabi: three to five years
  • Corn: one year
  • Cucumbers: three years
  • Leeks, onions: two to three years
  • Lettuce: three years
  • Melons: three years
  • Oriental greens: three years
  • Parsley: two years
  • Parsnips: one year
  • Peas: two years
  • Peppers: two years
  • Radishes: four years
  • Rutabagas: three years
  • Spinach: one season
  • Squashes: three to four years
  • Swiss chard: two years
  • Tomatoes: three years
  • Turnips: four years
  • Annual flowers: one to three years
  • Perennial flowers: up to four years

Is There a Way to Test Seeds for Viability?

Seeds gradually lose viability as they age, so a packet that begins with a 90 percent viability rating on the packet may, after three or four years, have a much lower viability rate. A simple seed viability test, done by placing a small group of seeds on a damp paper towel to see how many sprouts, can tell you roughly how many of the seeds in the packet will be viable when planted.

If you have a group of seeds you’re not sure about, you can still plant them, but space them with greater density than you would for fresh seeds. Even if only 30 or 40 percent of the seeds germinate, you can still have a successful planting.

Can I Save My Own Seeds From the Plants I Grow?

Saving and starting your own herb, vegetable, and flower seeds is a great way to garden for just pennies each year. Be aware, though, that seeds collected from hybrid plants may not “come true” from the seeds produced. You can still save the seeds, and those seeds will still sprout into seedlings, but it is likely that the mature plants will demonstrate different characteristics than the plants from which you took the seeds. This is because hybrid plants are created by cross-pollinating different parent varieties, and their seeds do not carry the full genetic information. This isn’t always a bad thing. You may actually find that tomatoes from saved seeds, for example, are tastier than the hybrids, although they may not look as perfect. Flowers seeds saved from hybrid plants may produce some unusual and interesting offspring.

If you save seeds from vegetables and fruit you grow yourself, store them in the same way that you save seed packets—in dry and cool conditions.

Learn how to save your seeds for future planting to save pennies in your garden, as they can last many years before losing viability.

32,000-Year-Old Plant Brought Back to Life—Oldest Yet

Feat may help scientists preserve seeds for the future.

PUBLISHED February 23, 2012

The oldest plant ever to be regenerated has been grown from 32,000-year-old seeds—beating the previous recordholder by some 30,000 years. (Related: “‘Methuselah’ Tree Grew From 2,000-Year-Old Seed.”)

A Russian team discovered a seed cache of Silene stenophylla, a flowering plant native to Siberia, that had been buried by an Ice Age squirrel near the banks of the Kolyma River (map). Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the seeds were 32,000 years old.

The mature and immature seeds, which had been entirely encased in ice, were unearthed from 124 feet (38 meters) below the permafrost, surrounded by layers that included mammoth, bison, and woolly rhinoceros bones.

The mature seeds had been damaged—perhaps by the squirrel itself, to prevent them from germinating in the burrow. But some of the immature seeds retained viable plant material.

The team extracted that tissue from the frozen seeds, placed it in vials, and successfully germinated the plants, according to a new study. The plants—identical to each other but with different flower shapes from modern S. stenophylla—grew, flowered, and, after a year, created seeds of their own.

“I can’t see any intrinsic fault in the article,” said botanist Peter Raven, President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who was not involved in the study. “Though it’s such an extraordinary report that of course you’d want to repeat it.”

Raven is also head of National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

Plant Study May Help Seed Vaults?

The new study suggests that permafrost could be a “depository for an ancient gene pool,” a place where any number of now extinct species could be found and resurrected, experts say.

“Certainly some of the plants that were cultivated in ancient times and have gone extinct or other plants once important to ecosystems which have disappeared would be very useful today if they could be brought back,” said Elaine Solowey, a botanist at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel.

Solowey resurrected the 2,000-year-old date palm that previously held the title of oldest regenerated seed.

Her palm seed, though, had been buried in a dry, cool area, a far cry from the S. stenophylla seeds’ permafrost environment.

Regenerating seeds that have been frozen at 19 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius) for so long could have major implications, said Solowey, who was not involved in the new study.

That’s because all seed-saving projects—the most famous being perhaps Norway’s so-called doomsday vault, aka the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (see pictures)—depend on freezing seeds.

“Any insight gained on seeds which have been frozen and how to thaw them and sprout them is very valuable,” she said.

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Raven added that, if we can uncover the conditions that kept the seeds viable for 32,000 years, then “if you were doing it yourself, you’d be able to preserve [seeds] for longer.”

The oldest plant ever to be regenerated has beaten the previous recordholder by some 30,000 years, a new study says.