Simple Seed Viability Test

I love buying seeds.

My local nursery makes it particularly enticing by carrying row after row of the beautiful Botanical Interest brand seeds - but I even love to go to Home Depot and browse their racks of Burpee - and other more common brands.

Most seasons I’ll buy way more seeds than I need and often double up on varieties that I already have at home.  It is a sickness, really.

So when I went to my messy shoebox o’ seeds (I really need a better organization system) this season, I realized that some seeds had “expired” 2 years ago.  Expired!?  What does that mean?  Will these seeds grow ugly, bad tasting plants?  No, no, of course not.  The only concern with “expired” seeds is that they may have trouble germinating and may not germinate at all.  So….. that being said, in your envelope of expired seeds you have one of two things – seeds that will or will not germinate.  The only way to figure out what kind you are holding is to test it!  Read more below to see how I did it last week….

Testing the viability is really very simple and quick.  I wish I had learned about it earlier.  It would have, potentially, saved me from throwing out a lot of seeds.

Most seeds will last 2-3 years but most brands will put an expiration date on the seeds that is one year from when they are packaged.  The probably do this to protect their brand name and make sure that their germination rates stay high.  Nothing is sadder than a seed that doesn’t sprout.

Step 1:  Collect the seeds that you want to test.  (In this picture you can see my beautiful seed organization system in the upper left-hand corner. )

Step 2:  Using a dampened paper towel, arrange 6 seeds, with plenty of space between them, on the towel and roll it up.  (I fold my towel in half before I put the seeds on it.)

Step 3:  Place each of your paper towels in a separate ziploc bag and label it.

Step 4:  Collect all of your bags and put them in a dark warm place.  (I keep mine in the cabinet above my fridge.)

Step 5:  Check your seeds 3 days after you put them up.  You’ll find that a lot of the seeds have sprouted.  I plant these right in the ground.  If they’re sprouted, you can count them as viable.  If any of the towels are drying, add a little more water.

Step 6: For those seeds that hadn’t sprouted on day 3, check them again on day 5 or 6.  If your seeds are viable they are probably sprouted.  If they aren’t viable, they probably haven’t sprouted.  You can give the ones that haven’t sprouted a couple more days just to be sure.  If the paper towels have started to dry out, wet them slightly again.  Throw out the seeds that don’t sprout.

This is a really simple system.  If you search the internet, you’ll find much more complicated systems.  Ones that use notebooks and charts and different methods for different types of seeds.  Personally, most of my packets of seeds cost .99-1.99.  This is about as much effort as I want to put out for that price point but you can certainly do more work, if you are so inclined.  The internet is full of ideas.


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  1. hahahaha! I thought I was the only one who calls chronic seed buying “a sickness”.

  2. I agree that testing seed viability using paper towels is a good way to check your seeds. However, many seeds will last more than 2-3 years! There is this very good website to look at to see if your seeds may be old: - . If you’ve kept track of when you bought your seeds, you can check their likely viability using the table provided. One thing I never do is try to keep onion seed for more than a year. Never works for me!

    • great idea but I thought some plants seeds can normally take a few weeks befor germinating. I’ve also heard that seeds found in the pyramids have germinated!

      • You’d definitely want to make sure you gave your seeds enough time. I’m not aware of any that take a few weeks to germinate but I’m sure they exist. Always read your seed packet :)

  3. This is how I start all my seeds every year.

  4. I kept my packets of seeds in the greenhouse and someone told me that with all the humidity we have in Florida the seeds are probably ruined. Do you think I should try this test with them or just throw them away?

  5. I’m a seed collector as well! This will be very useful and I am going to give this a try right away. I just discovered your blog today, via Pinterest, and I have loved the information you provide. I also have chickens and ironically this week I am struggling with one of my hens discovering the taste for my eggs. It has upset me because she is getting 2-4 eggs a day right now! I discovered your post on 10 suggestions to break the habit and am running with this plan! Thank you

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