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