Garden · Living Frugal · Self Reliance

How to Use Old Seeds

A captioned photo of seedlings with the text How to Use Old Seeds
photo credit: Springing to life. via photopin (license)

One area that I’ve been able to be particularly frugal in is my seeds. If you are a gardener and start your own plants from seeds… you are already saving money and are ahead of the game (compared to someone who has to buy all their starter plants from the greenhouse, or buys all their produce from the grocery store). If you consider the average seed packet can have 100 seeds, that’s 100 plants, more than you’ll ever need. Big savings.

But seeds have a viability lifespan – that means they do lose their ability to germinate as the years go by. Some have a short lifespan – like the onion family (1-3 years). Others, like wheat, pretty much will last your lifetime.

For a gardener, year after year, a big ol’ collection of seeds can gather. We are told by seed companies that seeds don’t last more than 2 years, and that you should buy new seeds every year, just to be safe. Well that sounds convenient for them, but is it really necessary? On the eve of day 365, does the seed all of a sudden die? No.

Remember that a seed is a living thing, and it is slowly respiring, using up its energy stores. Once the energy store is used up, it will not germinate no matter what. Just like batteries will slowly lose their power even while in storage, so do seeds. Most flower and vegetable seeds will remain viable for 3-5 years. Depending on the conditions where seeds are stored, that viability period can be shortened (stored in humid and/or warm location, temperature fluctuating), or lengthened (cool, dry, dark conditions).

Old seed gets a bad rap because the germination rate is often low. Rather than 90% of seeds germinating, perhaps only 10% will. This is a huge waste of a gardener’s time and energy if they’ve seeded lots of pots and only 3 plants came up. The gardener, in frustration, vows to buy seed every year and never use old seed again.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Here’s my method for re-using my old seeds. I have alot of old or unknown origin seeds because I’ve inherited seeds or raided my mother’s stash. She often just labels them something like “melon” and I have no idea how old or what variety they are. But if she saved them, they must be good, because if there’s one thing my mom knows, it’s gardening.

I have alot of seeds. I do buy new seeds each year, but only if I want a different variety or am completely out. I do NOT buy new seeds just because my other ones are ‘old’. Nope, I use my old seeds!
This method enables me to determine an actual germination rate for my seeds. Rather than guessing, I will know an exact % rate that the seeds are good for germinating. It also enables me to only pot and plant seeds with a 100% germination rate. That’s right, 100%. I no longer sow 3-4 seeds per pot, hoping one will make it. Every single seed that I put in a pot is a gooder.

Black film case labelled with Flat Stuffer Pepper beside pepper seeds
Photo by Prairie Girl, All rights reserved

First, I count out 100 seeds. If I don’t have or need that many, I’ll take 50 or 25. The above ones are my mom’s… note they are just labelled “Flat Stuffer Peppers”. Not alot of information on them, they are hand-me -downs, but I know these peppers are awesome, so I want some for sure.



Green treated red onion seeds on a wet paper towel
Photo by Prairie Girl, All rights reserved

I fold a piece of paper towel in half, and wet it so it’s damp. Then spread out the 100 seeds. The pictured seeds are my treated Red Beauty red onion seeds I’ve used up, that’s why they are green. I no longer buy any treated seeds – they are best stayed away from, a must if you want to go organic.

I fold the paper towel up and put it in a plastic baggie and seal it, labeling it with the contents and the date. Obviously I’m not too fancy about it.

Eight plastic baggies labelled with various seeds
Photo by Prairie Girl, All rights reserved

I  keep the packets in a warm place. I have a heated seed bed, but you could put them on top of a fridge or somewhere similar where it is consistently warm.

Check the seeds daily by gently opening up the packets and unfolding the paper towel. Unless 100% of the seeds are dead, you will see some of them starting to germinate when that seeds particular germination period has occurred.
Using tweezers, I gently pick up the germinated seeds and put each one in a jiffy pot, or seed starter plug. On the outside of the bag, I write however many germinated seeds I took out that day, for example “4 on Feb 25”. I keep checking every day, until after a few weeks when I’m certain no more are going to germinate.
By this time, I now have a seed tray with 100% of my seed pots full of seedlings, and none need to be thinned or pinched off because I used too many seeds per pot. And I did so without having to buy new seeds!
With each baggie, I can now do the math and calculate the germination rate

# of germinated seeds      ÷       # of seeds you started      =      % germination

Example: If in total I got 27 seeds to germinate from 100, that is a 27% germination rate, and I will record that with the seed packet for future reference.
Doing this requires no more time or energy from me than seeding the regular way. And, I save money from year to year, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!

21 thoughts on “How to Use Old Seeds

  1. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing! I spent a lot of money on seeds last year and was wondering the best way to go about using them without wasting precious time with my starting trays indoors. I will try this!


  2. LOVE this! Of course, I am gradually *trying* to be one of those awesome self sufficient gardeners… it will be a process to wean myself off of the economic grid, LOL! But I certainly appreciate this seed advice!Right now I'm reading a fantastic book you might like, or perhaps you've already enjoyed it… “Animal Vegetable Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. Anyway, found you through Titus 2 link up. Have a beautiful day in the country!! ~marie at the Lazy W


  3. I remember when my dad used to do this, I'm sure it saved us a lot of money over the years! I'll have to give this a try with some of my “old” lettuce seeds this spring! 🙂


  4. My dad did this too~and until now I had forgotten all about it! Now I know what to do with my basket of seeds that are just itchin' for a second chance! Thank you!


  5. Thanks a lot for your wonderful advice.As a first time gardner last year, I had bought multiple packets of many seeds not knowing that you do not need too many seeds per plant.
    Then got told by well wishers that I would likely have to throw away all the remaining since they were only good on the date of the package>>>
    But that all changed when I read what you wrote today.
    Do you post often in gardening season?J ust curious if I could learn more from other tips you may have ………thanks again.


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