How to Test Seeds for Viability

how to test seeds for viability and germination

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.

how to test seeds for viability and germination

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.

how to test seeds for viability and germination

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
how to test seeds for viability and germination
This batch had a 90% germination rate. We’re good to go!


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 ___% 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.

how to test seeds for viability and germination
little baby beans…


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!

how to test seeds for viability and germination

Other Gardening Tips

Planning an Orchard for Your Homestead

planning an orchard for your homestead

I must confess… Just saying the word “orchard” makes me green with envy… Fruit trees do NOT thrive here in Wyoming, therefore, my dreams of a homestead orchard probably aren’t going to happen as long as we live here. So, I’ve invited Angi Schneider, author of The Gardening Notebook, to share her best tips for planning an orchard with us today…

Fruit trees and bushes are important on the homestead, with minimal effort they can supply your family with many pounds of produce every year.

Unfortunately, growing fruit is often one of the most neglected things on a homestead, especially on a small homestead.

Growing fruit takes time. Sometimes there will be years between planting and harvest. So, the sooner you get those fruit trees and bushes in the ground the sooner you’ll have a fruit harvest.

While fruit trees truly do take minimal effort, it’s not as easy as digging a hole, planting a tree and calling it good. There is some planning that needs to happen before you buy and plant your first fruit tree.

SchneiderPeeps - Mulberries ripening

 Planning an Orchard for Your Homestead

1. Make a list of all the fruits your family likes.

This is the time to dream. Even if you think something won’t grow in your climate, but your family likes it, write it down.

2. Do a little research to find out what varieties will actually grow in your climate.

You can search fruit trees for your gardening zone on the internet. If you don’t know what gardening zones you are in, you can find your cold hardiness zone by entering your zipcode in the USDA’s interactive map and you can find your heat zone on the American Horticulture Society’s website.  Talk with local gardening friends to find out what varieties grow well in your area. Also, don’t overlook your local nurseries. They have a vested interest in you being successful, so they are usually super helpful. Master Gardeners clubs can also be a helpful resource. One last thing to consider is chill hours, some fruits need a certain number of hours per year below 45°F to produce fruit. County Extension Co-operatives keep these records so if you cannot find your hours online you can always call your local office.
But don’t cross a fruit off your list just because you’re told it won’t grow in your climate. Some fruit trees grow very well in pots. Meyer lemon and Satsuma oranges are two citrus trees that can be grown in colder climates inside in a pot.

SchneiderPeeps - bee on citrus bloom
3. Learn what trees are self fertile and which ones are not.

Self fertile trees are exactly what they sound like – the flowers from this kind of tree will pollinate themselves. Here’s a list of most self fertile fruits: apricot, pomegranate, citrus, fig, grape, persimmon, most peaches, most berries, and European plums (although they do better with two varieties).
Some trees are not self fertile and need two trees to produce fruit. You need to make sure that the two trees are different varieties that bloom at the same time. Two trees of the same variety won’t work as pollinators and neither will two different varieties that don’t bloom at the same time. Now, that does not necessarily mean you have to have two trees on your property. If your neighbor has fruit trees, find out what kind he has, get a different variety and they can cross pollinate. This is a great way to get fruit in an urban yard, since the trees need to be within 50 feet of each other. Apples, pears, Japanese plums, cherries and nuts trees are not self-fertile and require a pollinator.

4. Determine how much space you have available to plant fruit trees and bushes.

If you live on an acre or less, you can still have an amazing orchard but you might have it spread out in different areas of your property instead of one large orchard area. Consider using any walls or fences and espaliering some of the fruit trees. An espaliered tree is a tree that you will prune in such a way that it fans out over the wall or fence. This is a great space saver and yet you’ll still get a lot of fruit. If you live on an urban or small homestead you will also want to consider planting dwarf trees. Dwarf trees are trees that are grafted onto a root stock that will not allow the tree to grow large so you get the same great fruit in less space. Standard size trees have about a 20 feet spread, semi-dwarf trees have about 12-15 feet spread and dwarf trees have about a 10 feet spread.
SchneiderPeeps - apple blossoms
5. Put your plans on paper.

This is the fun part! Get out some paper and colored pencils and map out your yard or acreage. Take your list of varieties and start putting them on your map.  Go outside and walk the map and make sure your plans will work. Is there enough space for a full size tree of the variety you have listed? Is there enough sun? Is there an adequate water source? When the tree is full size will it cast a shadow on an area that you don’t want shaded, your vegetable garden for instance?  When planning your spacing you can stagger your trees to get more in less space. Make sure you keep this map in a safe place, like your gardening notebook, so you can refer back to it when it’s time to plant your trees.
6. Don’t think you have to plant the entire plan this season.

An orchard is a long term relationship, so you have time. Try to add just a few new trees or bushes each year and before you know it you will have a full orchard. It’s a good idea to start with either the fruits that your family loves the most or the most expensive ones to buy.
Schneiderpeeps - full Meyer lemon tree

How Much Fruit Can a Home Orchard Produce?

Just to give you an idea of just how much fruit these trees can add to your homestead, a mature lemon tree can give you over 200 pounds of lemons, a mature peach tree can give you well over 75 pounds, so can a mature plum tree. That is a lot of fruit!
So, unless you plan on selling your fruit or have a lot of friends who you love to have freshly picked fruit, you don’t need more than one or two trees of each fruit. Diversity is key in the home orchard.

planning an orchard for your homestead
About Angi

Angi Schneider is a minister’s wife and homeschooling mom.  She is passionate about growing food for her family and living a simple life. She blogs their homesteading and homeschooling adventures at and is the author of The Gardening Notebook which she wrote to help other gardeners remember all the great information they are learning.

Lemongrass – How to Grow It and Use It

how to grow lemongrass and tips for using it

By Anni Winings, contributing writer

I first came across lemongrass while visiting a farmer’s market in Florida while we were traveling. The little old man handed me a bunch of lemongrass stalks and said, “You put those in water and they grow again.” He picked up another stalk and showed me how to chop it and use the inner part of the lemongrass. It smelled amazing when he chopped it up, and I bought a couple of bunches of lemongrass.

Since then, I’ve used lemongrass to add a “what is that!” element to rice; to add a light, slightly spicy lemony flavor to smoothies (not to mention all its purported healing properties); and in all sorts of variations of stir-fries and soups.

As the old man promised, when I stuck the ends of the lemongrass in a jar of water, they did begin to sprout roots. I’ve moved twice since that time, and haven’t been able to take my potted plants across the borders of the new states we’ve moved to, so I’ve regrown lemongrass both from stalks found in oriental shops and from seed.

Once you get a thriving bunch established, you’ll have more lemongrass than you know what to do with.

how to grow lemongrass and tips for using it

How to Grow Lemongrass

Lemongrass is a sub-tropical plant and can’t handle hard freezing temperatures. If you live anywhere colder than about a zone 9a, you’ll want to grow your lemongrass in a pot, and bring it indoors for the winter. And even then, you might want to bring it in, just in case you get an unexpected temperature drop (the weather seems to be doing all sorts of funny things these days).

Grow your lemongrass in full sun, with plenty of water, in a rich, well-draining soil. If you’re growing it in a pot, top-dress it with compost or worm castings every couple of weeks, to make sure it’s getting plenty of nutrients.

Lemongrass will naturally propagate itself, once it’s established. Small stalks of new plants will begin to grow off the side of existing stalks (see picture below).

There are a handful of different varieties of lemongrass, though a lot of times, it’s not specified which variety you’re purchasing, whether in seed form or in stalks. I’ve grown at least two different varieties, though I don’t know what they’re called. I only know they were different because one had red streaks along the lower half of the leaves, and the other one didn’t.

I did a quick search to see who’s selling lemongrass seed at the moment, and neither of the companies that came up have a specific variety listed. (Baker Creek and Park Seed)

how to grow lemongrass and tips for using it

Lemongrass will germinate within a week or two and, if our experience is typical, the seed has a high germination rate. Keep the seeds moist and in a warm spot until they germinate. Transplant them to a pot when they’re about six inches tall, spacing them about 2-3 inches apart, and making sure they’ll have plenty of space for good root growth.

If you want to root your own lemongrass from stalks bought in a store or at a farmer’s market, simply place them in a jar with an inch or two of water, and let them sit until the roots begin to grow. Be sure to change out the water every couple of days. Once you begin to see new leaves growing, you’ll know that the lemongrass has enough roots and you can plant them in a pot.

how to grow lemongrass and tips for using it

To harvest a stalk of lemongrass, grasp firmly near the base of the stem and pull. The inner, white core is what is used in cooking, though the leaves can also be used to make a light, lemony tea.

Remove the outer green leaves and finely chop or grate the lemongrass. When I use it to flavor plain rice, I put the chopped lemongrass in a kitchen muslin bag and sink it in the water the rice is cooking in. Once the rice is done, I simply remove the bag.

A Few Lemongrass Recipes to Try:

About Anni

I’ve loved milk since I was a kid, I tend to collect books, my favorite season is fall, and I’m very allergic to cats. I’m a nutritional therapist, having obtained a Bachelors degree in Dietetics, but without the further qualifications to become a registered dietitian (I got married & had a family instead). I blog at Homestead and Gardens.

how to grow lemongrass and tips for using it

Our Deep Mulch Garden: Final Wrap-Up

how to use deep mulch in your garden for better moisture retention and fewer weeds!

I’ve fallen in love with gardening all over again.

As many of you know, 2014 was the first year I ventured into the world of deep mulch gardening.

Considering it’s October, I figured it was time to take final inventory of my experience and type out my thoughts and revelations (mostly because I know I’ll forget come next year…)

To sum it up?

Deep mulch gardening is the best thing that’s ever happened to my garden.


I LOVE IT. I will NEVER go back to bare dirt gardening. Never, ever, ever.

deep mulching garden

To read a little background on this my crazy mulching adventure and to learn more of the specifics of this whole deep mulch thang, check out this post where I talk about mulching for the first time, and then this post where I give a mid-summer mulching update.

For those of you who are curious about my final yields and such, here are all the nitty-gritty details—>

2014 Yields from My Deep Mulch Garden

Keep in mind, I have a rather small garden plot. We have plans to expand, but have to build a literal fortress around anything we try to grow (because of wild critters and our barnyard critters), so while putting in a second plot is on the “list,” it hasn’t happened quite yet! However, I had impressive yields, even from my small plot!


By far, this was the best onion year I’ve ever had. I planted two long rows of purple onion sets and one row of sweet yellow onions. The were SO happy and grew like crazy. My yellow onions were HUGE and just as pretty as the ones you can find at the store.

how to use deep mulch in your garden for better moisture retention and fewer weeds!

Now comes the sad part of the story… Our lovely turkey apparently has an affinity for onions, and wiped out nearly the entire harvest before I realized what had happened. So, I ended up with just one measly onion braid. However, that wasn’t the deep mulch’s fault, and next year I know to be extra-careful to leave the garden gate SHUT!

Peas & Beans

how to use deep mulch in your garden for better moisture retention and fewer weeds!

These were one of the few things I actually struggled a bit with this year. However, I don’t think the deep mulch is to blame. The early part of summer was very cool, and the pea & bean seeds really struggled to germinate. I replanted several times, but never ended up with a great yield. However, I still was able to harvest 3-4 gallon baggies of yellow beans to store in the freezer, so that’ll keep us in beans for a while, at least.

Beets and Kohlrabi

how to use deep mulch in your garden for better moisture retention and fewer weeds!

The beets were out of control this year! I ended up canning several batches and still have a bag in the fridge to eat! I mostly planted the white albino beets from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, but also did half a row of regular red beets. This was my first year of growing kohlrabi, so I just planted one row. However, it thrived in the deep mulch and we had more kohlrabi than we could eat.


how to use deep mulch in your garden for better moisture retention and fewer weeds!

This was an interesting experiment, since I decided to plant my pumpkin seeds in my failed hugulkultur bed from last year. I didn’t have high hopes, but poked a handful of seeds into the bed anyway and covered them in deep hay mulch as the plants popped through the compost. Much to my surprise, the pumpkins flourished and we ended up with 10-12 gorgeous Winter Luxury pumpkins from just a handful of seeds. I even had enough pumpkins to preserve for later, and I was able to enjoy my first pumpkin canning experience!


As I mentioned in my mid-summer mulching update post, my potatoes had a bit of a rocky start. Apparently, I covered them with too much mulch, and the shoots had a hard time poking through the thick layer of hay. Once I realized my mistake and removed a bit of the bulk, the green plants happily popped up and grew wildly. (Thankfully, potatoes are very forgiving, even after you try to smother them…)

how to use deep mulch in your garden for better moisture retention and fewer weeds!

In the past I’ve planted potatoes the traditional way: digging a deep trench, laying the seed potatoes in the trench, and then mounding more and more dirt as the potatoes sprouted. However, I decided to be a bit rebellious this year… I laid the seed potatoes on the dirt, but rather than mounding them up, I simply covered them with hay. I was holding my breath when I harvested them last month, half-expecting to be completely potato-less. But, the mulch came through for me again! I ended up with heaping boxes of gorgeous Yukon gold potatoes from just 3 rows. And the best part? I didn’t have to mess with mounding them this summer, and harvest was super easy– just pull back the hay and grab the spuds!


how to ripen green tomatoes

In the past, tomatoes have been my nemesis… I’ve had a few years where the plants seemed happy, but ended up producing dismal yields. I planted 8-10 tomato plants this year (mostly romas and Amish Paste tomatoes for making sauce) and surrounded the seedlings with hay mulch. Those few plants gave us boxes and boxes of tomatoes! Our crazy-early freeze forced me to harvest many of them green and ripen them in boxes, but regardless, I had enough homegrown tomatoes to make a full batch of sauce. This is a first for me!

Cabbage, Carrots, and Squash

I planted a few cabbage seedlings this year and they were downright picturesque growing happily in their mulch.

how to use deep mulch in your garden for better moisture retention and fewer weeds!

The carrots grew happily, although I did have some deformed ones. I’ve since been informed (by smarter gardeners than me) to amend the bed next year with kelp meal or wood ash to prevent the, er, unique formations. I think I also need to work the soil in my carrot rows a bit deeper.


As usual, I planted my squash too close together, so my zucchini and spaghetti squash had babies… Regardless, we enjoyed ample amounts of chocolate zucchini bread, and have several spaghetti squashes stored away for winter.

The Watering

Wyoming can be desperately dry in the summers. In previous years, I would often water every single day, and my garden would still wilt and dry out. It was… annoying. And frustrating.

With my deep mulch, this year I only watered about twice per week. The hay kept the underlying soil moist and soft, even when everything else outside was blazing hot. This saved me a lot of time dragging hoses around AND seriously cut down on our water usage.

The Weeding

I know everyone has weeds, but in year’s past, we had weeds in epic proportions. My poor baby seedlings usually didn’t even get a chance to germinate before they were already getting choked out. It was vicious.

I would spend hours and hours each week weeding like crazy, but could NEVER get ahead of them. As a mom, a homesteader with lots of other projects, and a business owner, I couldn’t afford to spend that much time in the garden, and was seriously considering giving up gardening entirely. (Ask my husband–I’m not kidding!) I wasn’t enjoying it, and had a pit in my stomach every time I’d go out to check on the veggies.


Deep mulch made me fall in love with gardening all over again.

This year? I spent about 10-15 minutes every other day checking on the rows and pulling a few weeds here and there. Sometimes I’d add an extra handful of hay if a spot was becoming bare, or pull a bit of hay back if it had scooted too close to the seedlings. But that’s it. For real.

And as payment for my minimal time spent in the garden? I was rewarded with the most bountiful harvest I’ve ever experienced.

G’night Garden

Our gardening season is complete and everything has been harvested. I left many of plant remnants in place and covered the entire garden plot with a generous blanket of hay for the winter. The plan is for the plant matter and hay to begin decomposing to create a whole new layer of nutritious-goodness for next year.

show to use deep mulch in your garden for better moisture retention and fewer weeds!

Come spring, I’ll pull the hay back from where I plan to place my rows to allow the soil to warm up, and we’ll start the process all over again. And for the first time ever? I’m actually looking forward to gardening season.

Where I Got My Crazy Ideas

This book by Ruth Stout  (affiliate link) was the #1 driving force in my decision to use deep hay mulch this year. She was quite revolutionary in her time, and I followed many of her sassy suggestions to the letter. As crazy as many of her suggestions sounded at first, they haven’t failed me yet!

how to use deep mulch in your garden for better moisture retention and fewer weeds!


Other Gardening Goodies You Might Enjoy:

What types of mulch have you used in your garden? Any stories to share?