The nagging question about this time of year is “Should I just use all my old garden seed?” This is complicated by enticing seed catalogs, fears of low germination, and desires to plant exactly the right thing. Let me offer some things to think about, that will hopefully help you decide what you will do.
1. The long term viability of a seed depends on its genetics, it status at harvest, and its storage. Some seeds just naturally germinate more easily than others, but this does not necessarily translate into longevity of seed viability. It has been my observation that some seeds are designed to retain that ability to germinate longer over time periods than others. There seems to be some inverse correlation between ease of germination and long term viability. That is, if a seed germinates more easily, it tends to not last as long as a seed. Kind of makes sense when you think about it. Such seeds get signals from the outside environment more easily and after a while, just get worn out if they can’t germinate all the way.
It can also be confusing when average percentage of seeds expected to germinate is added to the equation. For instance, a type of seed may sprout quickly, but not very many of them. However, overall, I find that ease of germination goes along with high percentages of germination.
2. Germination depends a lot on the seed getting the right signals. There are variations in how much light, heat, and moisture different seeds will germinate best in. Lettuce, for example, has a very good rate of germination if planted in cooler, moist conditions, but will be hugely disappointing if planted in heat. Peppers, on the other hand, really like to be warm and a bit dry. If you don’t know what your particular seeds like, read about them and experiment.
3. Storage of seeds can have a large impact on their viability, and thus whether or not they will germinate. The drier and cooler they are kept over the course of the year, the less they will be harmed. I usually keep mine in the basement pantry, which stays close to 60°F and is not close to any exposed water in the house (like the pond in the greenhouse, which is also cool in the winter, but quite moist.) I do have the advantage of Idaho being a high desert climate, meaning that most of the time there is next to no humidity. This is unlike when we lived in Taiwan and we had to put moisture catchers in the closets to collect water from the air so it wouldn’t settle in the clothes. If you live in an environment like that, you would need to do something similar to keep seeds dry. (Read more about organizing your saved seeds here.)
4. Not all plants produce the same amount of seed or seed that is easy to collect. This makes them more expensive and harder to procure. Even if they are old, it is probably worth trying to plant them.
5. Why is it that when we order seeds, we want to order all kinds of varieties, but when we plant the garden, we want to neatly fill in all the rows or squares with one variety? If you think of your garden design more like a creative embroidery than a unyielding work uniform, you will be set free to use of little bits of this and that old seed. Some of this might be affected by concerns about cross pollination and future seed saving from your own crops, but if you think about it ahead of time, it can probably be worked with one way or another.
6. Potentially limited germination of old seed can be compensated for by sowing seed more thickly than you would for fresh seed. Of course, if it hasn’t lost as much life as you were worried it had, then you have the work of thinning, so you might want to consider testing germination rates in old packages with wet paper towels and plastic bags.
If you don’t feel like pre-testing that way, sowing in flats can be a similar way of testing while still germinating them. For this, fill a whole tray (most that I use are approximately 10 by 20 inches, the same dimensions as most flats of plants are sold in garden stores) with moist soil and plant several little rows of seeds in the soil. How far apart you need to make the rows will depend on how large the seeds and first sprouts are. For many seeds, I can fit 4-5 rows in a single tray lengthwise. Then, I use my basic seed starting methods and watch the trays closely.
Once the sprouts are up all the way, they can be thinned and/or transplanted to individual containers. Using this method, you will not have done the work of filling pots with soil, only to have them stay empty due to poor germination. Alternately, you can over plant individual pots, but I always end up with more empty pots than I like this way. Another option is sowing more thickly directly into the garden, which is the best for some seeds and less overall work for you.
7. The photos in catalogs are the best of their crops, and as such play on your mind in the comparatively colorless winter. It can leave you with the feeling that if you just buy some of those seeds, suddenly your whole life will be vibrant. When you are looking at those photos, remember they were not only taken last year, but they are probably arranged in ways that over-emphasize crop yield and health.
Instead of putting so much hope and money into new seed, take advantage of what you have ready at hand. There are probably some varieties of flowers or peppers that would benefit from getting an earlier start. Then, you will have some of that longed for green right at your fingertips.
8. Using old seed can save you money that could then be used to buy a special plant that you can’t start from seed or would be really difficult. Some plants take so long to mature that buying them already growing is very appealing. Some varieties are only available as plants. Saving your own seed could also save you money and be fun. Here are some tips on that ☞☞ What to Think About Before You Save Seeds from Your Garden. If you save your own seed you will want to think even more about how and if to save and use older seed.
So, you can see there are reasons and ways to make the most of any old seeds you have been saving. Even if you are unsure about how well they have been stored or what their life expectancy is, there are ways to test or use them and get as much out of your prior purchases as possible. If you really want all new seed, more power to you. Maybe you can feed the old stuff to your chickens. Or donate it to an inquisitive young gardener, but be sure to give them a heads up about dealing with older seed.