You dig, you till, you fertilize, you plant, you water…
And then you wait. And wait.
And you scratch your head when nothing pops out of the ground…
Was it lack of water? A hungry animal? Poor soil? Bad seeds?
Whatever the cause, it’s always frustrating when you have to replant. Last year my bean rows had a germination rate of around 20%. It was dismal, especially considering all the big plans I had for those heirloom Golden Wax beans…
While there are lots of factors that could potentially cause your seeds to no-show, I’ll show you how to eliminate one of the variables today with this simple way to test seeds for viability
Seeds are tough little buggers, and can potentially withstand a decent amount of time in storage (especially if stored correctly). But if you come across a packet of older seeds, it’ll save you time and headache if you can test their germination rate before poking them into the ground.
This is what I’m doing with several of my packets this year, especially considering someone (aka: me) accidentally left them up in the shop attic where they proceed to get blazing hot, and then freeze in the fall before I remembered them. Whoops.
Better safe than sorry this year… I refuse to be beanless again!
How to Test Seeds for Viability
You will need:
- Old seeds in need of testing
- 1-2 paper towels
- Resealable plastic bag
- Sharpie marker (for labeling-optional)
Dampen the paper towel– it doesn’t need to be dripping wet, just nice and soggy.
Arrange the seeds on the paper towel. I like to use 10 seeds of each type, as it makes figuring the percentage easy, and ensures you’re getting a solid random sampling of the packet.
If you’re using seeds that look similar, be sure to label each area of the towel with the marker to keep them straight. Or just use separate towels.
Roll up the paper towel, or place a second paper towel over the top, to ensure the seeds is completely surrounded by dampness.
Place the damp towel/seeds in the plastic bag, seal, and set aside in a warm place.
Depending on the type of seeds you’re testing, they should begin to germinate anywhere from 2-14 days. (Seeds like peas and beans will sprout faster, while seeds like carrots or parsnips will take much longer). If your seeds are of the slow-germinating variety, you may need to spritz the paper towel with more water to keep it damp. If it dries out, the seeds will stop the germination process.
Once the seeds being to sprout, give them a day or two, and then take note as to how many sprouted vs. how many did not sprout. This will give you a germination rate. Example:
Out of 10 Tested Seeds
- 1 seed sprouts = 10% germination rate
- 5 seeds sprout = 50% germination rate
- 10 seeds sprout = 100% germination rate
Obviously, the higher the germination rate, the better. Anything over 50% is decent. Anything lower than 50% still might be usable, but you may need to plant more seeds to potentially make up for the “duds.”
My beans had around a 90% germination rate, so I’m feeling confident they’ll work it the garden this year!
Seed Viability FAQs:
Do I need to do this for ALL of my seed packets?
Nope. If the packets are new, or you are confident in how they have been stored, you shouldn’t need to do this. I’m only doing it for my older seeds that have been sitting around for a while.
What do I do with the seeds after they sprout?
If gardening season has arrived, simply plant them. If it’s not quite time to start digging outside, you can just compost them, or feed them to your chickens.
How should I store my seeds?
Seeds store best in a cool, dry place. Heat and humidity is definitely the enemy here. If you have room in your refrigerator, that’s a great place to keep them between planting seasons. If stored properly, some seeds can last for years.
Where’s a good place to buy heirloom seeds?
My favorite resource is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I’ve been using them for years!