Checking Seed Viability - Seed Starting Basics

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Use Your Leftover Flower and Vegetable Seeds

If you're like many home gardeners, you probably have a bunch of opened seed packets stored away. Maybe you grew some vegetables from seed last year, or you have flower seeds that you loved so you carefully saved some for this year's garden. But how can you tell if the seeds are still good?

Testing seeds to see if they can still grow or germinate is called testing seed viability. "Viability" means life - is there enough life left inside those seeds so that they will germinate or sprout? Testing your open seed packages for viability is very easy. Before spending the time and effort of planting an entire package of garden seeds, test seed viability using this simple at-home method. For frugal gardeners and those who need to save money on their gardening practices, using what you have on hand before racing out to buy new seeds will save you money.

How to Test Your Stored Garden Seeds

To test seeds that you have leftover from last year, you will need the following materials:

  • Seeds
  • A plastic zip lock bag big enough to hold a folded paper towel
  • A paper towel
  • Magic marker to label the bag

Count out an even number of seeds from the open package you wish to test. For example, count out 10 or 20 seeds. Moisten the paper towel and place your seeds on one quarter of the paper towel. Fold the towel so that the seeds are nestled between the moist folds of the paper towel. Slide the paper towel into the plastic bag and zip it sealed, gently pressing air out of the bag. Use your magic marker and label the baggy with the date and name of the seeds you are testing.

Place the sealed bag in a warm area. It's not necessary for it to receive sunlight; just keep it warm. Some people place it on a windowsill near a radiator, or perhaps on top of the refrigerator where the motor generates some heat. Either method is fine. You want the package at room temperature or slightly warmer.

After two days, open the bag and unfold the paper towel. Count how many seeds are showing signs of life. Look for green shoots or the seeds splitting and cracking while the tiny new leaves emerge. If you used 10 seeds and 4 sprouted, you have a germination rate of 40%, which isn't great but not bad. If none sprout, you can try your test again if you have extra seeds or just throw the open seed package away - it's not likely you have many seeds in the package that will sprout.

You can use this method to test any open package of flower, herb or vegetable seeds. Some seeds are very tiny, however, and will be difficult to see or test. This test works best with many vegetable seeds such as beans, pumpkin, cucumbers, squash, corn and similar vegetables - large seeds you can see easily.

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Storing Vegetable Seeds and Flower Seeds

Most home gardeners need only a percentage of the seeds in every seed package. After all, if you buy a package of tomato seeds, there are about 30 seeds in the average package - and you may not have room for 30 tomato plants. There are certain ways of saving vegetable seeds, flower seeds and herb seeds over the winter to improve the potential for successful germination the following year.

  • Keep seeds dry. Moisture helps them germinate; dry temperatures keep them stored.
  • Store them in airtight containers with tight-fitting lids. Many seeds are tasty treats for pests such as mice. I use old coffee cans or similar containers to store my seeds and keep critters out of them.
  • Cool or cold temperatures also help keep seeds viable longer. Some gardeners store them in the basement of their homes, which generally has a steady 60-65 degree temperature for most homes.

Be sure to keep your original seed packages. These contain helpful planting tips including germination times, planting times, and more.

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© 2012 Jeanne Grunert

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