How Long Will Your Seeds Last?January 24th, 2009
I keep getting this question emailed to me over and over again, asked in slightly different ways.
For the longest keeping seeds, five to ten years or more, I offer seeds sealed in foil pouches. This includes Our Garden Security Collection, Our Garden Bean Collection, and two small grains. Hulless Oats and Rye. These have been carefully dried and a desiccant packet has been added. They are properly prepared for even longer storage in your refrigerator. In your freezer they will last much longer, like Grampa Neffs beans, which were frozen for 22 years before I planted them in my 2007 garden.
Since this article was first written in 2009, we have also added Our Super Survival Pack, which is our most popular item and Our Spring Security Collection to our Products page. These collections of seeds are also carefully dried, packed with a desiccant and sealed in a vapor proof foil pouch.
In my article about Long term Seed storage I explain how thoroughly dry seeds may be frozen, for really long term storage. See the Related Article section below for details.
All of my estimates for cool dry seed storage times in this article have been compared to reliable sources, like my favorite seed saving book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, other books and information from various State Agriculture Schools.
How long seeds last in cool, dry storage conditions is controlled by the crop itself. Onions and parsnips only have good germination rates for one or two years. Carrots, leeks, lettuce and chives seed should germinate for two or three years.
For seeds like these with the shortest shelf life, I recommend buying new packets on a regular basis. They will not be that expensive at a high quality seed company. Check the links at the side of this page to find reliable sources.
I also noticed several companies selling garden seeds in a can which include some short lived seed varieties. There is no magic way to keep onion seeds for ten or twenty years. Some seed canners claim the amount of seeds they include will plant a very large garden. Well, that depends on how closely they plant their seeds. Very wide spacing can greatly exaggerate the planted area. If you already grow a large garden, you will know what you want to plant. If you do not, you would be much better off to start small so you can learn how to garden. Think about each kind of vegetable seed they offer. Ask yourself, if I was really hungry, would I want to eat radishes, watermelons, and cucumbers? How much lettuce and string beans would I plant? If I am gardening by hand, or with limited amounts of fuel, how much space would I give to crops like those?
Others claim you may open a large can of seeds and plant some each year. I guess you could. It would be safer to have your seeds sealed and stored in amounts you would actually plant each year. Often the claim is made that since all the seeds in the can they sell are open pollinated, you may save your own seeds forever more. In a way that is true, but each kind of seed is saved a little differently, and it will take a number of years to learn how to save each kind reliably. Start with the most important crops. To learn how to save your own seeds,I like the information at the International Seed Saving Institute, ISSI in the links below.
Our Garden Security Collections include reasonable amounts of seeds. 25 Squash and 25 Pumpkin seeds will plant 5 hills of each, and I harvest about 10 of our squash or pumpkins from each hill. That is roughly the main dish for 100 family meals. In a new garden, your yield may be less. Some companies include hundreds of squash and pumpkin seeds. This helps them claim the collection they sell will plant a huge area. Rows of field pumpkins and winter squash are often planted 20 feet apart. Our dry beans and corn seeds are offered in balanced amounts to be served together for complete protein meals. We offer both earlier and later harvested crops. Our collections can be planted in a reasonable size garden which can be maintained with hand tools. As you learn more about growing these crops, you can double the size of your garden each year. At first you will need to have some other sources of food. No one becomes a successful gardener in one or two years. By starting with these carefully selected varieties, a beginner can grow a lot of food. I learn and try new things every year and so should you.
Another thing I should point out about the large seed collections in a can is that many kinds of seed will cross pollinate. They will give you some sort of hybrid mongrel crop seed. For example, Swiss Chard and Beets are in the same family and would cross. If you saved seeds from your Swiss Chard, some of them may try to form a bulbous root like a beet. What is that going to taste like? Will it keep in a root cellar for months like beets? Who knows. The seeds will be randomly crossed, not an intentional hybrid with predictable results.
There are four major families of Squash. The Pepo group includes zucchini squash, yellow summer squash (like crook neck), Acorn squash and pumpkins. You can only produce true seed by growing one variety from each group at a time. Our Waltham Butternut squash is in the Moschata group, and will not cross with our pumpkins. We choose the Waltham because it keeps the longest of any winter squash. Our Sugar pumpkin was chosen because it is sweet and small enough size to cook and serve for one meal. Field pumpkins are mostly for decoration, and take up a lot of garden space. Summer squash is nice, but Winter squash and Pumpkins keep for months. You can grow them all to eat the same year, but the seeds inside your fruit will have crossed if more than one variety from each of the four groups is grown. Next year, planting those new seeds you saved will result in various hybrid combinations. Who knows how they would taste or if they would keep.
Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage are in the same family. Since cabbage can be harvested over a long period and keeps, I chose both early and late varieties. Compare the food in one head of cabbage to the food in a head of broccoli or cauliflower. If you are hungry, which one would you grow? Once you add broccoli or cauliflower into the mix, you have to watch out for all of these crops cross pollinating.
Another example of how little some people know about saving seeds is to offer several varieties of the same crop. If you grow more than one variety of tomato, they will cross pollinate, and you will no longer have seeds to collect for each variety. Unless you carefully choose crops which pollinate at different times. For corn, read my Corn is King article. It contains information about how I chose two varieties which tassel out at different times.
Before I decide to offer a variety of seed, I research all these problems. I do not offer seeds in my collections which will cross. Beans are self pollinating, so it is safe to grow different varieties. String beans contain almost no calories or protein. Consider them to be a weight loss diet vegetable you may enjoy. Shell beans eaten in the soft immature stage later in the summer do have some calories, but like sweet corn, the protein has not formed in the food yet. Our collection includes only beans which can be raised to full maturity, when they will contain protein. Two of them are dual purpose beans. Provider Beans can be repeatedly picked as a string bean, and will keep producing pods. Later in the Fall, they mature and dry to save as seed or a nice baking bean. Some of your French Horticulture Shell bean plants can be left to mature for additional baking beans as well as for seed.
I am suggesting that you think through all the claims being made by others. Think about the foods you will really need to eat. They are sources of calories, like root crops, grains and Winter squash and pumpkins, and dry beans for protein. Remember a wise saying, If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
I offer large economical paper packets of Beets, Spinach, Early Cabbage and Late Cabbage. They are easy to grow, and can be harvested over a long period of time. These seeds keep about four or five years. Our Butternut Squash and Sugar Pumpkins are available in paper packets. They should last six years in cool dry conditions. I have added new varieties of seeds offered in paper packets too.
When I choose which kinds of crops to offer seeds for, I look at several factors. Is it it easy and reliable to grow? Can it be harvested over a long period of time? Will it store without a lot of equipment? Will it be an important part of our nutrition? If it will cross pollinate with other crops, which of those is the most important one to choose to grow?
For example, carrots, parsnips and beets are all root crops which can provide calories. Only beets have edible tops to harvest during the summer. They are easier to grow, and the seeds keep longer in storage too. I chose to offer them first. That is not to say you should not grow the other two, it just that beets have advantages over them.
I always grow tomatoes and peppers. I start them very carefully indoors weeks before they can be set out in our garden. They need both artificial heat and light in our climate to grow into transplants. The harvested fruit must be frozen, canned or dried, so we need equipment and fuel to do that. I love these food crops, but if times were really difficult, I might not be able to start the plants or keep the harvest. I have chosen the very reliable Beefsteak Tomato seed to offer in paper packets. It is early ripening for a good sized slicer. Harvests are large for preserving too. I get about a bushel per plant in an average year in Connecticut. Because tomatoes cross pollinate, you must choose only one variety if you want to be able to save your own seeds.
Asparagus makes a nice permanent bed to be harvested for many years to come. Growing asparagus plants from seed is a very complicated task. It takes between three and five years before you will get your first harvest. The seeds need soil temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees for about two and a half weeks to germinate, and then they need to be moved into full sun. Our temperatures are much too unpredictable here in New England for that without some thermostatically controlled source of heat. If you want to specialize in it, it could be a Cottage Industry for you, but it is not a skill I would spend a lot of time mastering for my own garden. Once you buy crowns and set them out, you will be able to harvest them for 20 years or more.
It was practical considerations like these which led me to choose the crops I sell seeds for. I plan to continue to offer more varieties. I sell important food crops, which are harvested at different times of the year, or stored for Winter. They are all easy to grow. My life long interest in Homesteading, and more than 30 years of experience on my farm has taught which varieties really are more important.