Seeds: What they really want in order to grow

Some seeds are good; some are headed for the dumpster or compost bin

Some seeds are good; some are headed for the dumpster or compost bin

I called my friend Mia this afternoon (Master Gardener Mia Myers) and asked, “What can you tell me about expired seeds or seed dormancy or seed packet expiration dates – and should I just be throwing these poor things out?”

So here’s a very brief commentary from someone who really knows her seeds:

Seeds and their Lifespans

Don’t believe everything you see on a seed packet label. Here’s part of what they’re not telling you:

Some seeds are very short-lived, like tropical fruit seeds – a few weeks. They fall from the tree, get contact with some soil, and take root – which means they don’t have built-in storage, dormancy, or other defense mechanisms.

At the other extreme are ones like lotus seeds. Some have been found in the pyramids in Egypt and germinated thousands of years after being stored.

Seeds have dormancy built into them – a natural mechanism that means they are fertile when they hit the ground, then they go dormant if nothing happens. This is a good thing but it’s an obstacle to trying to grow seeds that have been stored for long periods of time, because they’ve gone dormant as part of their natural defenses.

Most veggie seeds last two to three years, six at the outside. The exception to that ‘rule’ is onion seed, which will last one year, period.

Seed Dormancy Wake-Up Calls

Some seeds are just hard-skinned by nature, and they need to be soaked to ‘wake up.”

Some have chemical inhibitors in their skin that have to be leeched out. These chemical inhibitors protect seeds that are eaten by birds, carried away and then dropped. Those inhibitors mean that they can survive the trip away from the original plant that shed them —and can grow far enough away from the source plant to flourish.

The USDA says what they have to print on seed packets.

The USDA says what they have to print on seed packets.

What about Seed Packets from the Store?

Now, to what’s on the package:  The USDA determines that. They tell seed companies what has to be printed on the package to inform the buyer of the seed’s state. Some seed companies will print more than what’s required.

Unfortunately, packets of seeds in stores are often stacked into showcases, bright aisles and corners, out in the garden center – lots of places where it’s anything but cool and dry and dark. That exhausts the seeds and they’re not as likely to germinate and grow.

The best place a store could put seeds for sale would be in a dark, cool, dry corner (where we’d never find them).

Storing Seeds so They’ll be Happy

To store seeds:

  • make sure the seeds are dry
  • place in a plastic bag
  • put the bag in a glass jar and seal it well
  • store the jar in the fridge.


{ok, it’s me again}

Bottom line – if you’ve been keeping your seeds out in a hot plastic shed or stacked on a shelf over the stove, those are probably some unhappy seeds. This means if you try to grow them, you may be disappointed more often than not.

Ditch the old ones in the trash, and buy fresh ones online from a reputable source that has kept them stored in ways that encourage seeds to remain dormant, dry, cool, dark, healthy and happy. Your chances of seed germination will skyrocket.

I confess, though… I have plenty of seeds that probably have no chance of germinating. I haven’t tossed them out – but then again, I haven’t rushed to plant them either. Some are expired; some were stored in places that were completely wrong. I will toss them someday, but in some cases, I am keeping them because the pictures are neat.

To your garden success!
Casey – the Garden Lass


9 tips to help your seeds turn into real plants

cardboard palms line up in a window planter box to hatch

Cardboard palms, one per pot, line up to hatch

Even the most experienced gardener can still get a thrill when a seed germinates. Since I’m new to gardening and very easily awestruck, I’m jazzed every time something sprouts or sends up shoots or shows the least bit of green.

I’ve also dug up some solid advice that’ll help improve the odds of that seed turning into a plant.

  1. Plant seeds at the proper depth. No instructions? Google the plant name plus “seed+germination” and see what depth is recommended. No luck with the search engines? A good rule of thumb is bury to the seed’s diameter. But that isn’t true for everything – some seeds actually need light to germinate! Grab a seed planting guide to make sure.
  2. If your garden soil is heavy, cover with potting soil. A clay-filled soil will not encourage germination as well as a properly prepared seeding mix or potting soil. For indoor seed starting, use seeding mix.
  3. Start your seed in the temperature that will encourage it the most. Cool weather plants need a lower temperature than warm weather plants and crops. Read the seed’s instructions for light and heat.
  4. Controlled moisture is far better than standing water. Read the seed’s instructions for the amount of moisture it will find ideal. Many will want you to check for moisture at specific depths.
  5. Test your soil pH before planting. A soil’s acidity or alkalinity can change dramatically over time. Be sure to test before each season’s planting.
  6. Raise your soil temperature to speed sprouting. If you’re not getting a good encouraging soil temperature, cover the ground with a black plastic sheet or mulch. Be sure to remove this at the first sign of sprout!
  7. Soak or nick your seeds. Sometimes seeds need help in breaking through the protective outer shell. Soaking softens this natural shell, and nicking can give just enough of an opening for moisture to enter.
  8. Start like-minded seeds in the same area. Do several of your newly seeded future plants want bright light and high humidity? Keep them together in your growing area, but place the ones that will become the tallest in the back.
  9. Grab a germination mat or sheet for indoor planting. A germination mat helps growth medium reach and keep the temperature and moisture level the seeds need in order to germinate.

Bottom Line: Knowing a few basic precautions – and taking a few minutes to research what your seed wants – can go a long way toward assuring your seeding -and seedling- success.

Skip cardboard rolls in seed starting

Do not use for starting seed

Don’t start seeds in leftover cardboard rolls.

This morning I got to throw out a 18″ square flat set up with dozens of seeds in cardboard rolls, most well on their way to sprouting. Something about the material or the glue attracted a cloud of little gnats. Since the gnats didn’t hover around the other planters, I figure it has something to do with the rolls.

So those went out into the garbage, along with the soil they were buried in. I’m removing the advice from my own eco sites.  Better safe than sorry.

I kept the pots but I’ll be sure to wash and bleach them before reusing. This turns out to be sound advice for reusing any gardening pot, to control pesky pests and bacteria.

Find something else for the kids to use to build their science, art and craft projects, especially if there’s a chance of the cardboard getting wet.

Morning Is Broken

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the word
[sung by Cat Stevens – lyrics by Eleanor Farjean]

Just like sunflowers

I’m slowly learning to be more sensitive to where the sunshine arrives and travels so that my seedlings are placed to gain the light they need to grow.

All this time here at the new place, the sun has been rising over the roof of our neighbors’ huge place to the east. This morning, the sun rose north of their mansion, enough north that it struck me as rather weird to have the sun rising in the North. The seedlings and cats were confused as well, all leaning north toward the light.

Once I realized that the plants knew more than I did, I scrambled to get everyone into the right place to catch the light they needed. Well, every plant. The cats took care of their sun-catching positions themselves.

Is it cauliflower soup yet?

Out here in the desert with no moss on the trees, we rely on natural clues like the way the plants reach for the sunshine, the cast of shadows at certain times of day, the shiny print on road signs (South Main should be toward the South, right?), and the good ol’ dashboard GPS in the truck.

The truck was smart enough to tell me that North is actually THAT-a-way, not over where I thought it was, based on the direction of the street. In fact, it’s so far that-a-way that it’s almost where I thought West was. So the north side of the house could actually be the north-EAST side of the house.

It doesn’t matter which way the sun shines in, so long as (a) the seedlings get the prescribed amount of sunlight each day – 6 to 8 for most of them – and (b) the cats get the prescribed amount of sunlight each day, which is as much as humanly possible.

And for all you Cat Stevens fans, here’s a flash from the past – 1976: