An Old Tightwad’s Thoughts On Planting Old Seeds

Save Seed Corn Now!


Most farmers and gardeners stand by the rule that new seed should be purchased every year. They believe that all the work and cost of preparing the soil and planting means that what little money one saves using old seed that might not germinate is not worth the risk involved. Since I am the champion tightwad of the ages, I have often used old seed and rarely lived to regret it. But this year I thought I had run out of luck. There is more than one moral to this story.

Spring was late in coming and therefore corn planting was late too. Actually the notion anymore that corn planted in May is late is baloney in my opinion. Here in northern Ohio, corn planted in the first two weeks of May often does better than earlier planted corn. The seed corn salespeople like for us to plant in April because then we might have to plant over.

So it was April 23 and I was staring at last year’s potato ground, still humped up in haphazardly hilled rows. If I didn’t go more than three inches deep, I could level off the humps with a rake and have a fairly nice seed bed for corn. Which I did, ignoring all the experience I had gained over the years that said it was too early to plant corn. You know how the gardener’s mind works— if I planted just two short rows and it didn’t come up, I could easily replant. Since the seed I was using was three or four years old, I wouldn’t lose much if it didn’t germinate, so I was really tempting fate. Three nights of near freezing temperature followed.

Nine days later, with the tractors now thundering away planting corn on the neighboring farms, two frail blades of corn came up in my planting. I waited two more days, dug down and found nothing but rotting kernels. By now the ground was warm and dry so I put out another planting of my old seed, too muleheaded to buy new. One of my sisters (whose sweet corn was already up btw) hinted strongly that I was an idiot for not buying new seed. So I renounced old tightwadeness for the moment, bought some new seed and made yet another planting. Yes, that is exactly what happened. Both the previous May planting and the new one a day later came up just fine.

At least I now had evidence that old seed corn remains viable for at least several years, so there, sister know-it-all. Makes me wonder how much money is lost in old seed that is just thrown away. Since much of mine has an anti-fungal red coating on it, it is not supposed to be fed to chickens either, although I notice that the moles and voles have no trouble at all eating it. And of course I have to wonder why two kernels of that April planting did come up.

 I asked the guy I buy from how long sweet corn seed will remain viable. He said that if kept in a cool, dry storage place, where the temperature did not vary (he emphasized that detail), “for at least a few years.” Since it is a known fact that some seeds will lie in the ground even for centuries and germinate when conditions are right, I don’t see why garden seeds won’t last at least a decade anyway.

But I don’t expect commercial corn growers to use old seed, even when the new costs over five hundred dollars a bushel. In that situation, you make sure you don’t buy more than you need in any given year. And of course being the champion doubter as well as tightwad, and with seed prices going up all the time, I wonder if seed companies ever mix last year’s seed into this year’s, and no one is worse off for not knowing.


Am I a tightwad for saving bromegrass seed from surrounding ditches? It seems to make the most sense since it wants to take over my newly sectioned pasture. It has been commercially farmed for the past 20 years….just waiting for the bluegrass and white clover to take over….have been collecting that seed as well…lol.

We tend to use packets up here, too, though I always seem to buy more seeds than I need every year, as well. I am using stuff as old as 2007 this year, and while my garden isn’t up yet (zone 2; we just planted last weekend and it hasn’t rained yet), I don’t expect any issues. I’ve heard that onion seeds don’t keep very well, but in my own experience, the seed supplier has a bigger impact on germination rates than the date on my seed packet. I tend to plant thick and then thin back to what I need, and it hasn’t been an issue. We normally plant beans, beets, carrots, sunflowers, melons, squash (pumpkins, summer squash, and winter squash), spinach, peas, corn, tomatoes, and peppers, and we’ve done fine with old seed for all of them. I tend to leave the seed packets out until we have a sunny, dry day, then tuck them into ziploc bags, sorted by type (I have a big garden and a lot of seeds). The ziploc bags go into a box (in alphabetical order; I’m funny that way), then the whole shebang goes in a dark corner of the root cellar – we haven’t enough room in the fridge. My understanding is that seeds prefer dark and cold. So far, so good!

If you doubt the viability of some old seed, before you invest time and money planting, do your own germination trial. Chit the seeds (google it), not with the intention of transplanting, but merely to see what percentage of them start growing roots. Based upon the results you can make an intelligent decision about how to plant, to buy new seed, etc. Of course this won’t prevent your seeds from rotting if the weather is cold and wet after planting.

I am guilty of using old seed, in large part because the seed I buy at the co-op is packaged in half-pound and larger bags, far more than I need for one season. Since I use an Earthway seeder, I’ll just make 3 or 4 passes in each row and thin out the excess later. The seeder is one reason why I have leftover seed in the first place. Because it precisely places seed in the row, I use less seed than I did back when I dropped it by hand. I usually use less than half of the seed I pour into the hopper. I can also plant as fast as I can walk without having to bend over (a major undertaking these days).

Everyone has their story … I love this post! I know it will go against the grain to say it, but here’s my experience with old seed. As market gardeners, we can’t take as big a chance if our first planting is bad. But for our own food crop or one that doesn’t matter if it goes to Market, I use what old seed I have first. But I have never had old onion or lettuce seed do well. I always buy that new. Instead of having old, we plant out all of the lettuce seed thickly late in summer for harvesting for fresh eating. I toss the old onion seeds. Squash/cucumber seeds do seem to last forever; some say they germinate better as they get older…? Parsnips, salsify, celery, parsley, peas seems to do OK after a couple of years, but peter out quickly after that. Beans, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, etc. seem to last forever. Corn … well, it seems we have more of the rotting problem because we always try for early corn like Gene … and end up with a cold wet rain that rots them. This year we’ve planted twice already … but the mole gets the blame this time! One more interesting thing with bean seed … Our first planting outside or in the hoophouse (if it’s early enough) do beautifully! But the second and sometimes third planting outside always get buggy and eaten off before they come out of the ground. Then after that … the next plantings all grow fine. I have dug up the beans and find little white grubs in them; I can’t tell if they’re IN the bean or hatching out at the time the beans are germinating. Some day I’ll figure it out …. maybe …. But remember; that seed you buy “new” every year isn’t necessarily new. Most reputable seed companies do a germination test on their seed before selling. Based on that, they will continue to sell older seed as well as new (or possibly mix them together?) Check the germination rate on the package; it will give you a clue on how thick to plant. I doubt most would sell anything with less than 80-85% germination … unless the specific seed is notorious for slow/poor germination.

I don’t know if I would try it with $500 per bushel canola seed but I have certainly used old garden seeds before. After reading this I really am inspired to plant some of those ancient white bean seeds in a jar that I saved from a relative. I think they could be 40+ years old.

Another frugal gardener here. I have never used up a whole packet of seed in one year in my life. I store my seeds in small zipper bags inside larger zipper bags in my “beer fridge” in the basement. I have noticed that small seeds seem to last longer than larger seeds. Lettuce never seems to go bad. Parsley, which you are supposed to buy new every year, finally started to lose viability in year 7. Beans, peas, and corn tend to only last about 5 years. I’m starting to pre-sprout my old larger seeds now to see if they are viable before planting. I soak them inside in water about half way up the seed until I see the root coming out. Then I gently plant. Works great, too, to prevent seed rot when summery conditions turn and the soil becomes cold and wet again. Very common with beans, for some reason.

Greetings, as a cheapskate dairy farmer I am proud to say we planted an old variety of dry garden beans and had great success. They were my neighbors great grandparents seed stock. They had been in the freezer 1971!! So much new seed varieties. Keep up the good work.

I wonder if anyone could post some references for successfully germinating the “way past expiration date” seeds we all keep. I have heard of using diluted hydrogen peroxide soaks and such.

    Gerry, my experience in dealing with old seeds is that if it REALLY matters, research the ideal germination conditions for the particular seed and then duplicate those conditions. If it doesn’t really matter, just sow a little more thickly. I’ve tried a lot of the fancy tricks and can’t see that it makes any difference.

“….with seed prices going up all the time, I wonder if seed companies ever mix last year’s seed into this year’s, and no one is worse off for not knowing.”

I have wondered this, too. They probably do germination tests on the fancier varieties, to be sure it’s not too low. I write the date on new seed pkts. and try to use the older stuff first, but always end up with some stray half-full packets from 6 or 7 years ago. When those are finally planted, they take a bit longer to germinate, but usually do grow.

Over the last few years, I have switched to all open-pollinated varieties, and have been saving seed from the vegetables and herbs that will go to seed here in zone 5. I started storing the seeds in the chest freezer, in airtight containers such as mason jars. This has worked well so far. Not every year is a good year for seed, and I am glad to have the older batch as a backup.

    Seed saving is what we humans have been doing for the past 10,000years or so since the advent of agriculture. From my own experience the thought of having to save every year for each cultivar is very time and land consumming. I have been saving seeds for the past 20 years and they all have different viability time frames, my red russian kale has lasted 10 years so far and only stored in a cool and dark place. I do not think that a plant whose seed has only one year of viability is a good evolutionary choice. Plants are much more craftey than that. Katherine

Yep, me too. Old seed seems to work just fine for me as well but I can’t remember any that’s gotten past five or six years before I’ve used it all up. I just found half a bag of white clover in the barn, no idea when I bought that exactly but it’s at least 5 years ago. I threw it out on the bare spots in the driveway, hopeful but not much caring one way or the other if it sprouted, but damned if it isn’t popping up all over. Must be all the rain we’ve had here lately. I’m a wikked penny-pincher too, so that just tickles me no end that I didn’t have to spend a single new dime to cover those tire tracks. I grin all over every time I look down and see more of it getting all green and happy in those cussed bare spots.

There should be a ‘like’ button for this whole thread and every comment in it. You folks are just cooler than sox on snakes… 😉

    Carmine, “socks on snakes” oh that’s a great one. Never heard it before. Is that your original. I warn you, I am going to have to steal it. Gene

I was gifted with a considerable quantity of silver queen sweet corn seed that was several years old. The person who gave it to me said it’s old seed, so plant it thick and maybe a little of it will come up. So I planted it thickly and it came up like the proverbial hair on a dog’s back. Not only that but it all grew higher than my arm fully extended over my head with a shovel . This plot had formerly been a horse corral so after I plowed it the soil was friable and obviously well fertilized. I even have a picture where you can see the tops of the corn visible from the far side of the barn, which was around 12 feet tall. I’ve never had Silver Queen grow like that since, even with new seed. It’s a good thing it was planted thickly becasue the neighbor’s cows broke down the fence to much on that sweet greenery. But They got full and went home so I still had plenty for eating ears and forage for critters. Even a large sow enjoyed eating that corn,She would chew it, stalk, ears and all, and spit out a wad of the fiber which resembled the stuffing in a baseball. it took me a while to figure out where those ball shaped wads of fiber came from. I thought a bird was dropping nest material at first, until I observed the sow emulating a baseball player in the dugout just chewing and spitting. Based on that experience, I have a 50 # bag of treated seed corn I intend to plant even though it’s “Old”. Just to be safe I’ll plant it thickly too.

I used to work in international seed stores for traditional varieties. For long-term storage the key is to dry the seed. For small lots, leaving it out in the sun each day for week will do (take it in on damp days and always at night). Then keep it in sealed containers, screw-top jars or fruit-bottling jars. Then put it in the fridge or even the freezer. Most agricultural and garden seed should easily last 10 years.

Gene, like you, I am a tightwad, cheapskate gardener when it comes to buying seed (or pretty much anything else, for that matter!) I routinely plant seed that is as much as 7 or 8 years old. I store my seeds in their paper packets inside zip lock bags in my bedroom closet. Temperatures there can vary considerably since it’s on an outside wall. If I have lots of a particular seed or if it’s an important part of my food crop, I might perform germination tests, but most of the time I just plant a few more. The older the seed, the more extras I plant. Of course, that often means I have to thin when the seeds all sprout, as they sometimes do. I save seeds from many of the veggies i grow, so I figure by doing that I’m actually selecting for seeds that will sprout despite long storage periods. I admit, however, I have not had much success with onion seeds. They seem to need to be fresh each year. If somebody can grow a plant from a 32,000 year old seed (, it’s pretty unlikely that the few years I store my seeds will really make much difference in my harvest, but it sure makes a difference in my pocketbook…

I’ve got a moderate sized vegetable garden, and tend to use a seed packet up until it runs out – frequently 5+ years later. For that matter, I’ve planted 10 year old tomato seeds from my aunt without any problems (heirloom variety which I couldn’t buy anywhere). Germination rates will drop off slightly as time passes, but I usually plant 3 seeds and thin anyhow, so if it’s older seed I’ll just toss 4 or 5 in instead, and I’ve never had a problem across a variety of plants (even things like parsnips, leeks, and onions which you’re supposed to buy fresh each year).

I do store my seeds in the refrigerator for most of the year, so that may help somewhat.

The 40 year old alfalfa seed I planted did not come up. Nor did the 40 year old vial of Four-O-Clocks that I got my Grandmother who passed away 30 years ago.

Our ancestors came west in covered wagons carrying seed that had been handed down from generations before to plant in the soil of new homesteads. Those seeds had to wait a while to get where they were going. I’m guessing years in many cases. They were often saved for the day a daughter married and served to make her new start with the gift of food for the table of her new family and home. Cherished heirlooms those. And that must be where we eventually got our garden heirlooms seeds of today.
I’m with you Gene and Susan and Heahter. I think the old seed works just fine. Some of mine is at least five years old (probably older as time flies these days) and went into the soil just a few weeks ago. I’m seeing signs of fruition. It sits in packages inside a ziplock bag on the shelf in my laundry room.

At least I now know I am not the only tight wad out there when it comes to saving seed! I have saved sweet corn seed for at least 5 years with no problems. I save most of my own seed and I have never had a germination problem so bad that I had to replant completely. I will say that seed vigor does suffer some and I have seen it take longer for old (4 plus years) seed to come up and get going.

I use to be in the Ag industry and I can tell you first hand, seed lots do get mixed and retested all the time, especially vegetable seed. At least they did ten years ago.

By the way I have been trying to read all of your books. Do you have a master list of everything you have written? It would help me make sure I find and read all of them.

I really liked “Two acre Eden”. I wish I had read this book back in the 80’s when I was reading Ruth Stout and Dick Raymond’s books. I am reading your Rodale book on Berries right now. (1974) I can not wait to read the book about your wood lot.

Sorry for rambling on. I am just a big and new fan of your work.

Ahhhh….I guess I’m a tightwad too then, because I use old seed almost every year. I’ve had great yields from seeds that are many years old. I am only talking veggie garden, not a field of corn, so I am able to store my seeds in the refrigerator. I have a large ziploc bag in one of the bottom drawers that contains all my seed – some of it may be 7-8 years old. Every year I plant and every year I wonder if it is too old, but every year it comes up.

I plant a small vegetable garden for our family each year. This means I only use a portion of the seeds in any given seed packet when I plant. I’ve been using “old” seed of different varieties for up to six years, with so little difference in germination as to be negligible. I vote to use your old seed until it’s gone. A caveat: I do store my old seeds in a very dry place (old coffee can with lid) under moderate temperatures (inside, away from heat and moisture).

Please leave your comments...

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>