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Will 'old' seed grow?

Beets do best in at-home trial, but other vegetables can still sprout, too

Beet seedlings
This Dutch Baby Ball beet sprouted from 6-year-old seed. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)

It’s a common dilemma: Leftover seeds.

Like most longtime vegetable gardeners, I accumulate way more seed packets than I can actually grow in my limited space. And each year, I tend to acquire more seeds in different varieties -- wowed by pretty pictures or tantalizing descriptions – instead of using up what I have on hand.

But this season with seed shortages online and limited offerings in stores, I revisited my collection of leftovers and was shocked to see the age on those pretty packets. Some were more than a decade old.

Can you plant old seeds? Sure; it depends on how old is “old.” The real question is: Will they grow?

Seed packets are stamped with the year they’re intended for planting. It’s not an expiration date, but a packing date.

Seeds lose their vitality – their life force and ability to sprout – at different rates, depending on species. Onions and leeks lose their vitality in just one year. Other seeds will still sprout five years or more after packing.

Beet seed packets
These older beet seeds were still good to grow.

In a winter garden experiment, I planted a dozen packets of seeds – all of them older than five years – in blocks in a backyard raised bed. I gave them lots of time and water. Sprouts of lettuce, carrots, onions and radishes never appeared.

The only blocks to sprout and grow? The beets. From Renee’s Garden, Heirloom Chioggia (vintage 2013) and Dutch Baby Ball (packed for 2015) both are growing and maturing.

So, “old” beet seeds can be planted with some success. I suspect the same will hold true of chard.

Of course, seed companies would prefer that we buy more seed each year. I know I will and already have.

But I also plan to be more mindful of using the seed I have on hand in a more timely fashion.

Seed vitality is often tied to how that seed was stored. Seed should be stored in a cool, dark place (below 50 degrees) in its original packaging. That helps maintain a stable moisture content. Too much moisture, the seed will sprout or rot. Not enough, it dries out and loses its vitality.

High Mowing Organic Seeds came up with this handy chart almost 10 years ago. It’s a good reference point when sorting your seed packets and deciding what to grow – and what won’t grow.

Seed type Longevity with proper seed storage


5 years


3 years


3 years


4 years


3 years

Brussels Sprouts

4 years


4 years


3 years


4 years


5 years


4 years


5 years


2 years


5 years


5 years


4 years


5 years


4 years


4 years


4 years


1 year


5 years


5 years


4 years


2 years


1 year


3 years


2 years


4 years


5 years


4 years


2-3 years

Summer Squash

4 years


4 years


5 years


4 years

Winter Squash

4 years


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Garden Checklist for week of May 19

Temperatures will be a bit higher than normal in the afternoons this week. Take care of chores early in the day – then enjoy the afternoon. It’s time to smell the roses.

* Plant, plant, plant! It’s prime planting season in the Sacramento area. If you haven’t already, it’s time to set out those tomato transplants along with peppers and eggplants. Pinch off any flowers on new transplants to make them concentrate on establishing roots instead of setting premature fruit.

* Direct-seed melons, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and annual herbs such as basil.

* Harvest cabbage, lettuce, peas and green onions.

* In the flower garden, direct-seed sunflowers, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, celosia and asters.

* Plant dahlia tubers. Other perennials to set out include verbena, coreopsis, coneflower and astilbe.

* Transplant petunias, marigolds and perennial flowers such as astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia and verbena.

* Keep an eye out for slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids that want to dine on tender new growth.

* Feed summer bloomers with a balanced fertilizer.

* For continued bloom, cut off spent flowers on roses as well as other flowering plants.

* Don’t forget to water. Seedlings need moisture. Deep watering will help build strong roots and healthy plants.

* Add mulch to the garden to help keep that precious water from evaporating. Mulch also cuts down on weeds. But don’t let it mound around the stems or trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave about a 6-inch to 1-foot circle to avoid crown rot or other problems.

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