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Monday, April 20, 2020

Using Old Vegetable Seeds

This is just what frugal gardeners do, right? We try to use up all of the seeds in a packet, even if that packet is 3, 4, or 5 years old. It just feels wrong to us to throw them away without at least giving them a shot.

Like all gardeners, I have several of those old packets of seeds. I have 4 options with those seeds. 1) I could just toss them and start fresh with new seeds. 2) I could gamble on them sprouting in my garden and plant those seeds directly into the garden soil. 3) I could trial some of the seeds in a damp paper towel inside of a ziploc bag and placed in a warm spot in the kitchen, to see what percentage will sprout. Or 4) I could plant the seeds indoors in small-celled flats, keep warm and under lights, then transplant any tiny seedlings from the batch out into the garden once their big enough to move.

We already established that I'm not about to throw away seeds that could still have life in them.

My garden space is limited, so I don't want to just seed my garden with questionable seeds. If I were to devote a 4-foot square block to beet seeds and only a quarter of the seeds sprouted, I would have wasted all of the little pockets of bare soil in between the tiny seedlings from seeds that did sprout.

While option number 3 is very scientific (telling me exactly what proportion of seeds would sprout, if directly seeded in the garden, and then adjusting the quantity of seeds per planting hole accordingly), it sounds like a lot of extra work, when my aim is just to get some veggies to grow for our table.

Option number 4 is what I went for. I started seeds, old and new, in small-celled containers indoors.

I discovered that some seeds just don't last that long. For example, my yellow crookneck squash did not sprout at all. I planted 8 seeds in 4 cells and zero sprouted. These seeds were 6 years old. I still had about 6 seeds leftover in the packet, so I went ahead and plugged those seeds into the soil that didn't produce any sprouts. If they sprout, then good, I'll have some crookneck squash. But if they don't, I'm not out anything extra at this point. I did have success with my zucchini seeds, which is another type of summer squash, so we'll be fine in that department, at least.

I also discovered that 5 year old beet seeds do have quit a bit of viability. I started the beet seeds about 8 days ago and I have sprouts in a little over half of the cells, starting 1 to 2 seeds per cell (I aimed for 1 seed per cell but sometimes an extra would fall from my fingers). I'll wait another week and then carefully transplant all of the sprouted beet seeds/tiny seedlings to the garden. (You usually don't start root vegetables in containers, as these plants need lots of root space and soil nutrients to grow the vegetable. For that reason, I'll plant these out much sooner than I would plants like tomato or zucchini when started in a flat indoors.)

In all honesty, I think that option 3 is really the "smart" option, starting 10 seeds in a damp paper towel. The humidity is more controlled in a ziploc bag than in an open flat. If zero seeds sprouted, I could conclude that 6-year old seeds of a particular type are likely worth planting in the garden. But, hey, I don't always do the smartest thing. 

I read something interesting in the news the other day. In addition to everything else that screams self-sufficiency, garden centers and seed catalogs are rapidly selling out of seeds far earlier this year compared to other years. It seems that not only are we all baking bread and coloring our hair at home (yes, Walmart suggested that hair color is on the panic-buy list, too), but we are also all growing our own produce this summer. 

Of all of the hoarding or buying certain items when you've never done so before, I think starting a vegetable garden is one of the most helpful for all of us, as home gardens can help take the pressure off of tight food supply situations by creating more supply, even if that supply is private. This means that people who don't have the option to have a garden will have more to choose from in the stores and hopefully won't have to pay crazy high prices for a head of lettuce or fresh tomatoes this summer.

In my opinion, the home garden is so satisfying. Not only does it provide lots of fresh and delicious food for my family, but watching it all grow is exciting, too. Doing this frugally, by trying to use all of the viability in my aging vegetable seeds, was extremely satisfying for this tightwad gardener.


  1. I think you were wise to choose that option. I tried in the fall to simply plant out some of my older seeds and it was an abysmal flop. Starting them indoors probably would have worked at least somewhat better. Hoping you have a great garden this year!

    We are adding two new beds because we're having our driveway widened (long planned) and figured we might as well use the soil. Those will go in this week and we'll put warm weather crops in them.

  2. Hi, Lili --

    This has been on my mind, too. I did order a few new seeds from my favorite heirloom seed purveyor; but I also have a stock of old seeds. If I get a chance to try to start some veggies, I'll definitely give the old ones their shot. Even if I get one or two plants out of a dozen packets, it would be worth the trouble to try, I figure.

    I enjoyed reading about how your experiments are going. I'll be interested to see if I have similar results with similar types of seeds.

    Have a good day, everybody-- Sara

  3. Good Morning,

    Many years ago dad owned a lawn and garden center and he would sell seeds and fertilizer. He could sell seeds from the prior year but he made sure to test them first to see what the percentage of them would grow. That was a lot of fun. When they failed the test then those would be the ones he couldn't sell and I think he used them for home use (not all of them due to volume!)

    In Michigan we can't even buy seeds or any gardening supplies. No plants, no lawn chairs, no fertilizer, no mowers, nothing gardening related at all. So if we want a garden we have to find old seeds to use. Very disappointing for the gardeners out there.

    We can't even buy paint to touch up walls in the house.


  4. Hi Lili! I hope your birthday was enjoyable!

    As Alice said, our gardening centers are currently considered "nonessential", although I have found that Meijer and Farm and Fleet are selling seeds. I was unable to find tomato seeds but when I mentioned this via email to a friend, she mailed me several of different varieties--so kind of her! My husband always uses old seeds using the method you chose, Lili. He has some lettuce coming up under a cold frame that he built a few weeks ago (that's kinda fun to watch!) and there are seeds planted that are living on top of our upright freezer in the basement (to keep the cat out of them .... ). Hoping the restrictions on garden centers lift in May.

    I saw an article that says the buying trends have changed during the quarantine--at first it was cleaning items and toilet paper and now hair clippers and hair coloring are the new hot items. I colored my hair last week--I figured if I had to look shaggy, at least I didn't have to be gray! The hair color seems to change the texture of my hair and make it more manageable so that's been helpful.

    Our wedding anniversary is tomorrow--but the weather is supposed to be icky again. Meanwhile, today is fairly nice--sunny and currently in the 40s--so I told my husband that he and I are going to a park for lunch picnic (probably too cold to eat outside .... ). We don't typically have huge celebrations but I'm feeling the need to do something fun and out of our current routine.

  5. I enjoy hearing your thought process why, how, etc. I am that way too, everything is scrutinized and evaluated, especially in hindsight, for lessons learned. I also make note, on paper and in discussion with others, of what to change in the future. It becomes a habit to be this methodical and process oriented. IMHO, we shouldn't learn and be students only for certain purposes and at certain times in our lives, but daily. My husband and daughter find my geek tendencies funny and tiresome, I understand they have other talents and abilities that serve them well like their quick response to what they hear, see and feel, in the here and now, so they don't have to be as process oriented. Such a long off topic (garden) rant again just to say I like and appreciate this kind of stuff lol

    Be safe, and have a nice day,

  6. Hi Cat,
    Oh, this is good timing to add the new beds. I hope they work very well for you! Good use of the free soil, too!

  7. Hi Sara,
    Good luck with your old seeds. I'd be interested, too, if you have similar results with same types of vegetables. Perhaps I could have gone online and read a bit before trying, to see what would be a waste of time and what might still work. Oh well. Can't be perfect.

  8. Hi Alice,
    Oh, that;s interesting about your dad, and now makes it clear just how important keeping his garden is to him. I hope that this year he is able to work in his garden.
    How frustrating with not being able to buy supplies that would keep people at home! I sure hope that this changes very soon for your state.

  9. Hi Kris,
    Yes, thank you -- I had a nice birthday.
    I've been using a pop-up greenhouse as a cold frame. I didn't start any seeds in it, but am transferring some of the seedlings to it as they get a start.

    Your plans for a park picnic sound pleasant. Happy anniversary to you and your husband!

  10. Hi YHF,
    Obviously, I do tend to rehash my choices, after the fact. I agree with the life-long learning idea. I think I'd feel stagnant if I didn't continue to learn, even as I am now older.
    Have a nice day, YHF!


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