How Long Will Vegetable Seeds Stay Viable?

by Seasonal Wisdom on January 8, 2013

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Each year, I end up with many more vegetable seeds than I could possible plant in my garden. So, I give them to friends. Or, I save them for the next growing season … or, the next growing season after that.

As a result, some of my seeds are several years old. Should I throw them in the trash? Not necessarily.  To learn more, I did some research. Here’s what I learned about the average shelf lives of common seeds, and how long vegetable seeds stay viable.

Not Clear:  It’s not always easy to know how long a particular type of seed will last, as Margaret Roach points out in this excellent post in A Way to Garden. She features an interesting chart that shows how expert opinions differ on seeds’ shelf lives.

Here are my rough estimates, based on advice from seed sources, gardening books and cooperative extension services. Sources are listed below.

How Long Will Vegetable Seeds Stay Viable:

Vegetables Average Shelf Life
Bean 2-3 years
Beet 3-5 years
Broccoli 3-5 years
Carrot 3 years
Corn, Sweet 2 years
Cucumber 5 years
Eggplant 3-5 years
Kale 4 years
Lettuce 2-5 years (lots of debate!)
Muskmelon 5 years
Onion 1 years
Pea 3 years
Pepper 2 years
Radish 5 years
Spinach 2-3 years
Squash 4 years
Tomato 4 years
Watermelon 4 years

seed storingStorage Matters:  The way you store your seeds will determine how long they will stay viable.

Ideally, seeds like to be stored somewhere cool and dry.

Some people store their seeds in a jar in the refrigerator. But the authors of Heirloom Life Gardener, who own Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, recommend that seeds be kept in an airtight container, such as a jar or envelope, in a dark, cool spot where the seeds won’t get any light or moisture.

My set-up isn’t fancy, but I keep my seeds in their packages and store them in this Seed Keeper in a dark, dry room that stays cool in my house. I won the Seed Keeper during a #gardenchat giveaway on Twitter years ago, and it has worked well for me.

What Do They Look Like?  You can often tell whether the seeds are still good by their appearance, according to the Iowa State University Extension.  So, give those seeds a peek before you plant.

Do the seeds usually look round and plump? Then they probably won’t “germinate well if they are pocked or wrinkled,” say these extension agents.

When in Doubt … Test: Still concerned? Give your seeds a germination test.

Select some randomly picked seeds, and spread them across several layers of premoistened paper towels. Keep them in a plastic bag or container somewhere warm. In a couple days, check seeds to see if they have germinated. Repeat every day for a week or so. Here’s how I presprouted seeds for faster growth in the summer, which is one way to help you test your seeds.

So, don’t rush out to throw away those old seeds. Check to see if they may still be viable, and be sure to sow a bit heavier, just in case. What are you planning to grow from seeds this year?

Get Growing: Here’s a Seasonal Wisdom mini-resource guide for growing food from seeds. Let me know if it helps you!

Seed Viability Sources:

 A Way to Garden

Heirloom Life Gardener by the owners of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension

Iowa State University Extension

Colorado State University Extension

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Hilary Sussex January 9, 2013 at 8:01 am

Excellent! I’ve got a few packets of old seeds that I’d stored in my shed for just over a year and I was sure that I’d have to chuck them. I’ll give them a go now :)


Seasonal Wisdom January 9, 2013 at 8:11 am

Thanks for your message, Hilary. I’m delighted this information was helpful to you. That’s exactly what prompted me to write this article. I wondered myself how long my seeds would last. Have a great gardening season, and hope to see you again. Teresa


amber stawicki January 11, 2013 at 10:46 am

Thanks! I have a ton from moving two summers ago and wasn’t sure if they were still good! I have all the seeds you listed and more. You saved me quite a bit of money!


Seasonal Wisdom January 11, 2013 at 11:21 am

Glad it helped, Amber. Have a great growing season. Teresa


Kerrie & Carol January 11, 2013 at 10:46 am

Seed talk!! You know we love it!!
Thanks for using our Seed Keeper. Our method of storing seeds saves time and money. We love that it becomes a little history box of our gardens. As we leaf through the seed packs from previous years its a great reminder of what worked and what didn’t.
We are also big fans of the paper towel germination test!!
Sometimes seeds choose not to adhere to their expected lifespan. We think of old seed vessels that are unearthed and the contents still germinate after hundreds of years. The miracle of the seed!


Seasonal Wisdom January 11, 2013 at 11:22 am

Interesting! Seeds are miracles. Yes, your Seed Keeper continues to store my seeds well, but I had to move all the “seed history” to another box. Too many seeds. Isn’t it wonderful? Teresa


jim January 15, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Nice post. I’ve got a picture in my photo gallery of things I planted last year(lettuce and bachelor buttons)that are 8 and 9 years old-with the seed packet right next to the pictures to show it. Love your site…Jim


Seasonal Wisdom January 15, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Hi Jim: Thanks for your nice words. I appreciate it. Good for you for getting 8 and 9 years out of the same seed packages. You must have been storing them correctly! Teresa


Ann Marie February 19, 2013 at 11:37 am

Thanks for researching this topic! It’s something I always wonder about when sowing ‘old’ seeds from previous years. I’d heard of the paper towel germination test but never tried it – I always just sow thickly when I’m not sure if the seeds will still be viable. Maybe I’ll give it a go this year!


Seasonal Wisdom February 19, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I do the same thing, Ann. If the seeds are a little “old,” I sow them a little more thickly. Thanks for stopping by. Teresa


Joe Dirt March 12, 2014 at 5:11 am

I have some seeds from 1987-1991 still in their packets. Do you think they have a chance?


Seasonal Wisdom March 12, 2014 at 9:46 am

Joe – It depends on what type of seeds, how they were stored and a lot of other factors. I’m not an expert on the topic, but I’m guessing they probably aren’t.


Nahum Reduta March 19, 2014 at 11:04 pm

Seems I have some packets of 90′s seeds myself. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to try, and the plantings could easily be replaced with more current alternatives. Here’s to greens by any means!


Seasonal Wisdom March 20, 2014 at 9:59 am

Well the good thing is that vegetable seeds are reasonably priced, and you can grow a lot of seeds from one packet. Enjoy!


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