Old Seeds

By Teo Spengler | May 10, 2022
by Teo Spengler
May 10, 2022

It’s funny how age can be good or bad. Well-aged wine is a fine thing, and old money is always an advantage. Old souls are considered wise and worthy creatures, but old seeds have negative connotations. How old is too old when it comes to a seed? What are the risks of planting older seeds? Well, that all depends.

Old Seeds

If a seed represents hope, an old seed represents old wishes that have never been realized. Old seeds are seeds that fell from a tree or plant a long time ago but have yet to sprout, grow, or create a new plant.

The fear surrounding old seeds is not that the plant or vegetable grown from it will be toxic. Think about grocery products sold past their date — we avoid them to distance the risk of getting sick. Seeds are not at all like that. Any old seeds that grow will produce just as lovely flowers, as delicious veggies, as a young seed of the same type. The problem has to do with seed age and viability.

Seed Age and Viability

What is the relationship between seed age and viability? Clearly, the older the seed, the less chance you have that it will germinate. Most are still viable after a year, some after two, but beyond that, the general feeling is that you are pushing it.

However, for anyone, like me, who never wants a whole lot of any vegetable, you never use up your seed packages. I mean what would I do with 100 radishes? And I often take the seeds I don’t get around to planting over to my house in France. My rule of thumb is “there’s no harm in trying”, so I keep the packages and use them the following year.

Planting Older Seeds

A gardener who decides to start planting older seeds takes a risk. But it is not a risk with their health or that of their family. Rather, the risk is that the seeds will not germinate. But it is a risk, not a certainty, even as the years pass.

I have planted lettuce seeds that I bought four years earlier and had no problem with germination. The last pinch of radish seeds, planted six years after the first, grew just as well as any radishes I have ever seen. 

The ultimate seed resilience I have experienced involved a box of nasturtium seeds I gathered from my garden in San Francisco. I posted them to France, dreaming of having the same, pretty, bright flowers in France that I enjoyed in California. Given the customs of two countries, the box took six years to arrive in France and it was another year before I planted them. They grew astonishingly quickly and cover my slope every summer.

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