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Old Seeds

 
Guarren cito
Posts: 79
Location: Zone 4A
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Hey everyone,

I'm planning on using a lot of old seeds this year. They're packed for 2013 and are carrots, corn, cucumber, melons, zucchini, pumpkins, and tomatoes.

Is there a risk of my plants sprouting and growing. But then withering and dying or will they just not sprout? I would like to know so I can buy more if I get no sprouts.

Are any of those seeds guaranteed to not sprout? I'm thinking the corn is not going to.

And (off topic) should I buy potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes at the grocery store or are there benefits to buying them from a seed catalog?

Thanks,
 
Su Ba
pollinator
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Location: Big Island, Hawaii (2300' elevation, 60" avg. annual rainfall, temp range 55-80 degrees F)
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A lot depends upon how those seeds were stored. I store my seeds in a sealable jar (I use canning jars) and in the refrigerator. Since I save much of my own seed that I produce, it is not commercially dried down enough to save in the freezer. But I have room in the refrig so I don't hassle it. Most two year old seed properly stored will germinate, though perhaps not at as high a germination rate as the package lists. Parsnips are an exception. The seed needs to be fresh very year.....at least that is how it has worked for me. Perhaps if they were frozen they would last longer.

So if your seeds were just left in their paper packets and set on a shelf in the garden shed, there's a chance that few, if any, will sprout. Under such conditions the seed absorbs and loses moisture repeatedly, thus eventually killing the seed. Now if your garden shed is exceptionally dry and cool (like the back corner of a Mexican cave), then the seeds might sprout.

Now if the seeds do sprout, the seedlings shouldn't die just because the seed had been stored. If they die, it's from other reasons. Storage effects germination (sprouting) but not subsequent seedling survival, as far as I know.

Potatoes -- planting supermarket potatoes can be risky. There is a late blight that is spreading rapidly around the country that is passed via the tubers. If you use certified seed potatoes, then you have minimal risk of bringing late blight to your garden. But supermarket potatoes very well could have come from one of the thousands of farms already infected with late blight. Thus you could be introducing the disease to your own garden soil. Not a pleasant situation. I started with certified seed potatoes and then saved my own tubers for replanting each year. This method gives me the best chance of keeping my gardens clean of late blight.

I don't know if Jerusalem artichokes have a soil borne disease. Perhaps someone else will know. Could they transmit root knot nematode?
 
Alder Burns
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Location: northern California
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In addition to storage conditions, different plants have a varying intrinsic seed viability. Generally the larger the seed, the longer the life, but there are exceptions. Carrots, parsley, and basil, I believe, are generally not worth saving for a second year. Brassicas and tomatoes will often sprout well for 3 or 4 years and I have had decent results from corn, squash, beans and such like from five year old and more seed. All of these were stored in jars, with salt or dessicant, at room temperature.
 
Guarren cito
Posts: 79
Location: Zone 4A
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Great, thank you guys!

My seeds were stored in the pantry, ironically right next to the empty mason jars lol.

I'll report my results to let you know how the seeds turn out. I'm pretty good at killing seedlings

Springs almost here, the robins are back and the coyotes are howling!
 
Jessica Gorton
Posts: 274
Location: Central Maine - Zone 4b/5a
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I'm of the "might as well try it" school of thought - all you are going to waste is some potting soil and time, really. And while I've had the best luck with tomatos and brassicas, I've had old parsley seed sprout just fine (soak the seeds first), old carrot seeds the same. Also old onion seed, which is only supposed to be good for only a year. Parsnips, not so much. I've also found that if it sprouts, it acts like any other seedling, no worse than the fresh stuff.

You can try checking germination by wetting some seeds and putting them on damp paper towels for a few days. I never do that, I figure I'll just plant them and find out the old fashioned way .
 
Casie Becker
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It's amazing to me how few threads we have about germinating old seed. Is nearly everyone here a big enough gardener that they use up most of their seeds every year? I'm certainly not.

In fact this year I decided it was time to start winnowing down the masses of seeds that have been accumulating. Some of them we didn't like, some of them we could only use a few at a time, and some of them didn't do well in our garden. My gardening skills have been steadily improving so even for those that didn't do well when I first tried them, it was worth trying again.

I used dense spacing and mixed seed varieties together and filled every bare corner of my garden with something. When it comes time to plant the warm season crops I'm actually going let them battle it out for the gardening space. Most of the cool season plants will be in decline from the heat by that point.

While I didn't manage to clear out the whole backlog of cooler season plants I've reduced it to things that we regularly grow that I know have a long shelf life. I still have a huge assortment of warm season plants that are going to go out later in the year. Since so many of these plants are large, I know I won't have garden space for all of them.

I'll do my best to take advantage of the long growing season by doing two complete growing cycles, but that may only exacerbate the problem as I also intend to save fresh seed. For those of use with smaller gardens, has anyone found a good way to balance the abundance of seed with reasonable seed rotation rates?  

Weather here can be very variable from year to year, so having a wide variety available is essential to gardening success. Ideally I'd have seed from the survivors of every year. Finding out about land race gardening is probably going to turn out to the be best thing ever for my gardening, as before I was afraid to try saving seed from most vegetables. Now, once I've used up this backlog, I will at least only feel the need to store seeds by vegetable rather than having a lot of subtle different varieties.

edit: I forgot to post the encouraging old blog entry that I found about this. http://daughterofthesoil.blogspot.com/2008/04/why-i-love-out-of-date-seeds.html This whole blog is pretty cool. A lot of her writing is about breeding new potatoes from seed. In fact it looks like she finally retired her blog to devote her time to publishing at least one book on that subject. Thankfully her location in another country/climate helps reduce my urge to source yet more seeds from her experiments.
 
William Schlegel
Posts: 25
Location: Montana
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I'm a botanist and it takes me away from my garden sometimes for years as I seek work out of state. I had saved seed and bought some more intending to garden in 2006. Then starting in January of 2006 I spent five garden less years in California. On my return to Montana I planted the seed in 2011 I even bought a couple fresh seed packets of some of my old favorites. I needn't have bothered except for two. Dragon Carrots and Tarahumara White Seeded Sunflowers did not make it.  Corn, squash, and beans were all fine. I store my seeds in the basement which has a pellet stove, an oil furnace we sometimes use, and some space heaters so it's maybe just a little cooler than room temperature.

Old seed can usually be planted to revive an old heirloom you've seed saved as long as it still has some germination. The problem is more one of seed quality. Quality seed germinates evenly at a high rate. As storage length, temperature, and humidity increase seed quality declines. There is actually an electrical conductivity test for seed lots. Poor quality seed actually leaks more when soaked in water- the more the seed leaks the better the water conducts a current. Old seed produces weaker germinants and weaker plants. This means if your germination rate has declined you may need to plant more seed and plan to thin. It also may not be fair to compare seedlings from a weak seed lot with those from a higher quality seed lot. If you get some 10 year old tomato seed at a seed swap you might want to grow it, save the seed and replant it the next year to evaluate the variety properly. You can also get a weak seed lot by saving seed from minimally viable seed or by improperly storing seed. Say you grow a corn variety that barely sets viable seed in your climate- that seed will be of lower quality than that of a shorter season variety that easily dried on the plant in your climate. For instance I grew 60 day corn once from the desert southwest. I got one ear at around 100 days or so. However painted mountain corn does great here because it was bred here in Montana. If the problem is poorly adapted varieties the solution is to either keep growing them in the hopes that they eventually adapt or to tweak things and cross them with an adapted variety.
 
William Schlegel
Posts: 25
Location: Montana
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Casie Becker wrote:It's amazing to me how few threads we have about germinating old seed. Is nearly everyone here a big enough gardener that they use up most of their seeds every year?


I certainly don't in fact I intentionally only plant half a seed packet that way I get to try the seed two years. When I throw out this rule I usually loose seed varieties I may at least have wanted to cross with something more adapted.

Casie Becker wrote:I used dense spacing and mixed seed varieties together and filled every bare corner of my garden with something. When it comes time to plant the warm season crops I'm actually going let them battle it out for the gardening space. Most of the cool season plants will be in decline from the heat by that point.

While I didn't manage to clear out the whole backlog of cooler season plants I've reduced it to things that we regularly grow that I know have a long shelf life. I still have a huge assortment of warm season plants that are going to go out later in the year. Since so many of these plants are large, I know I won't have garden space for all of them.


Sounds like my 2016 garden I had well over 100 varieties to grow and only 1300 or so feet of growing space. I have not been a disciplined seeder in recent years so I planted lots of dense little patches. A few things I think this makes seed production failures more likely Namely Quinoa and beets. Most things some of the crowded plants in the center only produce pollen but that helps prevent inbreeding depression. My solution since I have acreage is to buy a garden seeder to reduce my density impulse and massively increase my garden size- oh and buy lots of new varieties to make things even more complicated!


Casie Becker wrote: Weather here can be very variable from year to year, so having a wide variety available is essential to gardening success. Ideally I'd have seed from the survivors of every year. Finding out about land race gardening is probably going to turn out to the be best thing ever for my gardening, as before I was afraid to try saving seed from most vegetables. Now, once I've used up this backlog, I will at least only feel the need to store seeds by vegetable rather than having a lot of subtle different varieties.


Weather here in Western Montana is year to year variable as well. I love this landrace gardening idea too Cassie I think I've been doing a little of this since reading Gary Paul Nabhans and Carol Depoe's books starting almost 20 years ago and recently Joseph Lofthouse's articles. I think it's a great idea to purchase seeds from Joseph and similar seeds including seeds from old Native American landraces from Native Seed Search and others like Carol Deppes beefy resilient bean grex. The idea is picking up steam too and more and more catalogues are offering landrace varieties. I just got a catalogue from adaptive seeds with a purple tomatillo landrace in it that sounds just like what I was contemplating creating! I think this style of gardening has the potential to protect us from climate change. Especially if we don't go it alone - by trading seeds even annually we can keep our landraces outbred, diverse, and resilient

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