The gardener who dies with the most seeds is the winner. That definitely seems to be my goal as I have difficulty disposing of old, expired vegetable and flower seeds. I can’t exactly explain my seed hoarding tendencies. Perhaps I subconsciously fear a zombie apocalypse will someday destroy the world’s seed supply.
Do Seeds Expire?
Aside from my hidden aspirations to be the seed superhero who saves civilization, I realize that keeping and using old seeds has its drawbacks. Mainly, seed viability drops as seeds age. Case in point, I once planted an entire pack of three-year-old parsnip seeds. I knew better.
While some types of veggies seeds retain decent germination rates when they are three years old, the germination rate of parsnip seeds drops dramatically once the seeds reach their first birthday. Out of the entire pack of parsnip seeds, only one germinated.
Which leads gardeners to ask, “Do seeds expire?” Yes, but not in the same manner as the jelly donut sitting on my desk. When food expires, it becomes unsafe to eat. If I leave the donut on my desk past its expiration date, the sugars in the jelly will ferment and the yummy baked portion will mold. Or so I’m told. (Jelly donuts don’t hang around my desk that long!)
Seed Sell-By Dates
Expired vegetable and flower seeds are perfectly safe to use. They simply lose their ability to germinate as time goes on. I’ve often used lettuce seeds that were four or five years old and other than a lower percentage of them sprouting, I had no problems. The plants grew and produced like those grown from newer seeds.
For this reason, I treat the seed packet expiration dates more like the seed sell-by dates. This philosophy has helped me save money. For instance, I don’t hesitate to purchase radish seeds when I see them clearanced at the end of the season. Radish seeds can be viable for up to five years.
Plus, I use seed packet expiration dates to my advantage when I start my pepper plants. I love to grow many varieties of peppers, but I don’t have the space to plant all the seedlings that would sprout from the many packets of 20 count pepper seeds. Knowing pepper seeds have a shelf life of about two years, I purchase new seeds every other year.
Since I know pepper seed viability will be lower the second year, I start 8 seeds in year one. This leaves about 12 seeds for the second year. This seems to work fairly well for me. Each year, I usually end up with about six plants of each variety of pepper. Usually, but not always.
So in fairness to other gardeners, I must say that using expired vegetable and flower seeds can be a gamble. But, I gladly don my cape and take this gamble. After all, the world will need somebody with the expertise to grow expired seeds when the zombie apocalypse strikes.