Give seeds a test for A+ performance

Before starting your seeds, give them a test to see if they’re still viable. (Courtesy photo by Lynn Ketchum)

Will they or won’t they? That’s the perennial question when you nestle seeds into the soil each spring and wait for sprouts to make an appearance.

Whether you’ve selected and saved seeds from the garden, ordered from a catalog or bought off the rack, they can be a disappointment. But there is a way to minimize your frustration.

“It's easy to check vegetable and flower seed viability, and it can save you time later when the gardening season begins,” said Ross Penhallegon, a horticulturist with Oregon State University’s Extension Service. “Some seeds remain viable for a year and others for three or more years.”

To find out whether a variety of seed will germinate and grow, Penhallegon suggests the following test:

  • Place 10 seeds an even distance apart on a damp paper towel. Roll up the towel and place in a plastic bag.
  • Leave the damp, rolled towel in a warm spot. The location's lighting doesn't matter.
  • After three to seven days, check the paper towel to see which seeds have germinated.

“The percentage of seed germinating in the towel will give you a fairly good idea how the same seed will do in the garden,” he said. "If half the seed did well in the towel, half of the same batch of seed will probably do well in the garden."

Seed is best stored through the winter at 50 degrees with 50 percent humidity. Place packets in a sealed jar with a desiccant or powdered milk at the bottom to absorb moisture. Keep jars in a cool room or refrigerator. Seed can also be sealed in a plastic bag and stored in the freezer.

Some seed types last longer than others. Here is the average seed life for common homegrown vegetables and flowers: bush and pole beans (three years); beets (two years); broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi (three to five years); carrots (three years); Asian greens (three years); collard, kale (three to five years); sweet corn (two years); cucumbers (three years); leeks, onions (two years); lettuce (two years); melons (three years); parsley (two years); parsnips (one season); peas (three years); peppers (two years); radishes (four years); rutabagas (three years); spinach (one season); squashes (three years); Swiss chard (two years); tomatoes (three years); turnips (four years); flower seed (annuals are generally good for one to three years and perennials for two to four years).

For information on all aspects of seed starting, refer to the extension publication “Propagating Plants from Seed” at For information on vegetable gardening, check out “Growing Your Own” at


About the OSU Extension Service

The Oregon State University Extension Service shares research-based knowledge with people and communities in Oregon’s 36 counties. OSU Extension addresses issues that matter to urban and rural Oregonians. OSU Extension’s partnerships and programs contribute to a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future for Oregon.

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