How to Save Your Vegetable Seeds for Next Year
Learn to save vegetable seeds for years to come.
A packet of vegetable seeds may look dry, brittle, and lifeless, but in many cases, seeds are very much alive. Inside each plant seed is the embryo of a future plant. However, seeds do not remain alive forever. How long seeds remain viable depends on the type of seed and how well it is stored.
Most Vegetable Seeds Can Stay Viable for Years
Most vegetable seeds remain good for about two to three years, but some, such as onions, deteriorate within a year and others such as lettuce, can successfully sprout after five years. The table below lists average years of viability for well-stored vegetable seeds, compiled from regional sources. There will be some variability because of the variety of seed and whether the seed was fully ripe and kept dry in storage.
Seed Storage Guidelines
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How to Store Vegetable Seeds
You can’t do anything to change the life expectancy of different types of seeds. But if you save your own seed or need to store purchased seed, you can keep it fresh for the maximum amount of time by taking these steps to store it properly.
- Be certain the seeds are completely dry, to the point of being brittle, before you pack them away.
- Place dried seeds in a paper envelope, to absorb any moisture that might get in, and label with the name and year.
- Keep the envelopes in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.
- Store in a cool, dry place.
How to Test Seeds for Viability
There’s an easy way to determine how viable your saved seed is and what percentage of it you can expect to germinate.
You Will Need:
- 10 seeds
- Paper towels
- Sealable plastic bag
- Permanent marker
- Moisten a sheet of paper towel so that it’s uniformly damp, but not dripping wet.
- Place the 10 seeds in a row along the damp paper towel.
- Roll or fold the paper towel around the seeds so that they are covered.
- Place the paper towel with the seeds into the plastic bag and seal it. Write the date on the plastic bag, so there’s no guesswork involved. If you are testing more than one type of seed, also label the bag with the seed type and variety.
- Place the plastic bag somewhere warm, about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (a sunny windowsill or on top of the refrigerator should work).
- Check daily to be sure the paper towel does not dry out. It shouldn’t because it is sealed, but if it gets very warm, you may need to re-moisten the towel with a spray bottle.
- Start checking for germination in about five days. To do this, gently unroll the paper towel. You may even be able to see sprouting through the rolled towel. Very often the roots will grow right through it.
- Check your seed packet for average germination times for your particular seed, but generally, 7–10 days should be enough time for the test.
- After 10 days, unroll the paper towel and count how many seeds have sprouted. This will give you the percentage germination you can expect from the remaining seeds in the packet. If only three sprouted, it is a 30% germination rate. Seven would be a 70% germination rate, nine would be a 90% germination rate, and so on.
What the Germination Rate Tells You
Realistically, if less than 70% of your test seed germinated, you would be better off starting with fresh seed.
If 70–90% germinated, the seed should be fine to use, but you should sow it a little thicker than you normally would.
If 100% germinated, your seed is viable and you’re ready to plant.
There is no need to waste the seeds that have germinated; they can be planted. Don’t let them dry out and handle them very carefully so that you don’t break the roots or growing tip. It’s often easiest to just cut the paper towel between seeds and plant the seed, towel and all. If the root has grown through the towel, it is almost impossible to separate them without breaking the root. The paper towel will rot quickly enough and, in the meantime, it will help hold water near the roots.Many vegetable seeds can be viable for years if they're stored properly. Learn how long each type of seed can survive and how to store and test them.
How long will seeds last?
We get asked this a lot. The answer is – it depends. It depends on the seed, on the packaging, and the conditions the packets are stored in.
To start with, we need to be clear that we expect you to sow your seed in the same growing season you buy them in. We have this in mind when we test the seed and date the seed packets, and you should expect good germination in this case. But seeds are living things and you will not get such good results if you forget to plant them for one season and leave sowing them until the following year.
We now supply our seeds in two types of packaging, plastic bags and paper envelopes. The paper envelopes are much better environmentally as they just compost – we hate being responsible for hundreds of thousands of plastic bags dumped in the environment each year.
Different species of vegetables have very different seed life, ranging from the Liscari Sativa which we only sell from harvest til the following spring, because by the summer the seed will be dead, through to melons, where some older gardeners swear by using 5 year or older seed because they believe it gives more fruit.
The table below gives a very rough indication for the most common vegetables of potential seed life, if they start out really good and dry (not just room-dried)
Do be aware that the way in which seeds are stored will affect their life – the following times assume that the seeds have been stored somewhere cool, dry and dark. If seeds get damp or are kept in warm conditions they will keep significantly less well. You’ll only reach the top end of the seed life shown below if the seeds are really dry and kept somewhere in an airtight sealed packet (not paper) that stays at a steady cool temperature. If you have an unheated under-the-stairs cupboard, then that’s ideal as it will stay fairly constant in temperature throughout the year.
Also, germination is not an on/off state, what will generally happen is that as seeds get older the percentage that germinate will start to drop off, and then at some point will fall to zero.
LIFESPAN OF PROPERLY-DRIED SEED:
Type of vegetable
Rough estimate of seed life
Beetroot, chard & leaf beet
Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, kale, brussels, turnips etc)
up to 3 yrs max
If do you have an old packet of seeds, and wonder whether they are worth sowing, you can always test their germination yourself.
Put a couple of layers of damp kitchen towel on a saucer, sprinkle a few seeds on it, and wrap it loosely in a plastic bag (so that it stays damp but is not airtight). Put the saucer somewhere warm – an airing cupboard is ideal – and check after a few days. If your test seeds have germinated, then you are fine to go ahead and sow the rest, sowing more thickly if only a proportion of them grew. If nothing is happening, then you need new seeds.
Please, don’t try to buy a survival-stash of seed for the zombie apocalypse !
The other thing that we continue to see year after year is people who come to us worried about social breakdown and who want to buy large amounts of seed to store ‘for an emergency’. But this really doesn’t make sense! Yes, we know there are lots of websites out there selling ‘survival seed packs’ but to be honest, they are just preying on people’s fears, and its really not a good use of your money at all.
Firstly, seeds are best sown fresh. Even stored in a fridge or freezer, the germination percentage and vigour will reduce over time, often quite quickly.
More importantly, suppose you do find you’re in a nightmare situation where you suddenly need to grow your own food – it will be too late to start learning then! Even as an experienced gardener it can take several years to clear a new plot and make it properly productive.
And its not just learning to grow the food, you’ll need to learn to save the seed, and store the veg overwinter. All take several years experience. So if tempted by one of these ‘survival packs’, just picture yourself hungry, standing there in front of your powerless defrosting freezer , with your now-out-of-date seeds in your hand. How exactly does that help you?
So, our view is this: Yes, we are living through the biggest theft in history – as the richest 1% of society turn gambling losses of private banks into public debt to be repaid by the rest of us, the taxpayers. Yes, it is outrageously unfair that our schools and hospitals are closed and privatised so that more money can be given to the bankers. And yes, coupled with climate change and peak oil, the current food supply and economic situation is pretty precarious. So, yes, we agree that it might well be wise to be a bit concerned at this point.
But if you are worried about the future, just stashing seeds away really won’t help you. The best thing to do is to start your garden now, while you have spare time and money – and start learning now to grow veg well on your plot, maybe try to learn about storing it without electricity overwinter, and – even better – learn how to save your own seeds for future years. Perhaps your new skills won’t ever be needed, but even so, you’ll have had fun learning, and not lost anything.
The alternative, of just buying a pouch of seeds and bunging them in the freezer, is of course much easier, but will actually achieve nothing, other than enriching some doom-mongering seed seller somewhere.
There’s lots of information on how to save seed on our website here, plus we also sell (at a reduced price) Sue Stickland’s book Back Garden Seedsaving, which will tell you all you could ever need to know about seedsaving.
Company No 5924934
VAT No 841181938
DEFRA registered Seed Merchant No 7289
Soil Association Organic Seed Packing License AP27266
Our Unique Structure: Although a limited company, we have no shareholders. The aim is not to make huge profits, but to supply great seeds to home gardeners at reasonable prices, and to educate people about home seed-saving. As part of our ethical policy, all staff are paid the same hourly wage, including the directors.
Our Unique Guarantee: We have spent years trying to find the best varieties for you. We think these are the best seeds you can sow, and we really hope that you enjoy growing your vegetables. We will refund or replace if you are in any way less than delighted with them, even including the flavour of the resulting crop!
Gardeners Should Save their Own Seed: Because these seeds are not hybrids, you can save your own seed for future use: there’s no need to buy new each year. Saving your own is easy. You will get great seed, and great vegetables adapted to your local conditions. Do have a go – read the seedsaving instructions we provide with every order, and also on this site.
We have now sent out over 165,000 sets of free home seed-saving instructions!
Our Seed Club: Due to really daft seed laws, many of our fantastic vegetable seeds can only be supplied to members of our Seed Club, because they are not on the ‘approved list’ of permitted vegetable varieties! But membership costs just one penny .
When you order, you will be charged a penny for a lifetimes Seed Club Membership. For details see terms and conditions.