Last Updated: January 29, 2024

Garden Season Prep: Sorting Saved Seeds

By Published On: January 8th, 20244.1 min readCategories: Garden

Last Updated: January 29, 2024

Now is a good time to clean up your leftover and saved vegetable and flower seeds. Here’s the average shelf life of different vegetable and flower seeds

Two shoe boxes full of seed packets, bottles and tins with plant seeds

My not very well maintained seed collection before the clean up

Other than some maintenance, mid-winter isn’t exactly the best time to get out in the garden, even here in a relatively mild USDA zone 9 (if you call morning temps of 28° “mild”). Fortunately, even though the weather outside is less than inviting, there’s plenty to do indoors so you’re ready for gardening season when it arrives.

One of the first things you should do — before making plans for next year’s garden — is clean up and organize your collection of saved seeds and leftover seed packets from last year (as well as many previous years).

If you’re like most gardeners, over the course of the year(s) your seed collection will grow and you’ll lose track of what you have and whether they’re viable or not. That will result in wasting money on seeds you already have and time on planting seeds that won’t sprout.

You can avoid those headaches (and save some money) by going through your saved seeds each winter, tossing expired ones, and inventorying and organizing the rest.

Clean up Your Seed Collection

Step 1: Remove expired seeds

When going through their seed collection, the most common question home and small gardeners have is “are these seeds still good?” In other words: if you plant these seeds, will they sprout, or are they too old?

The average shelf life of most vegetable and flower seeds varies anywhere from 1 to 5 years. A few last even longer. To determine whether your seeds are still viable, use the chart below. (Downloadable version – PDF)

Average Seed Storage Life (years) Source
Type GC* JSS*
Artichoke & Cardoon * 1–4
Asparagus 3 3–4
Bean 3 2–4
Beet 4 2–5
Broccoli 3 3–5
Brussels Sprouts 4 3–5
Cabbage 4 3–5
Carrot 3 3–4
Cauliflower 3 4–5
Celery & Celeriac 4 3–5
Chicory 4 4–5
Chinese Cabbage 3 3–5
Collards 4 3–5
Corn, Sweet 5 1–3
Cucumber 2 3–6
Eggplant 5 4–5
Endive 4 5
Fennel 5 3–4
Kale 4 3–5
Kohlrabi 4 3–5
Leek 3 2–3
Lettuce 2 1–6
Melon 6 3–6
Mustard 5 4
Okra 4 2–3
Onion 2 1–2
Parsley 1 *
Parsnip 1 1–3
Pea 1 2–4
Pepper 3 2–5
Pumpkin 2 4–6
Radish 4 4–5
Rutabaga 5 3–5
Spinach 1 1–5
Squash 3 3–6
Swiss Chard 3 2–5
Tomato 4 3–7
Turnip 4 4–5
Watermelon 4 4–5

GC – Source: Gardening Channel
JSS – Source: Johnn’y Selected Seeds

Note: These storage numbers are averages, so actual life will vary. The best way to ensure a long storage life is to store the seeds in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. Seeds that are older than their average lifespan should either be tossed or tested for germination (see step 2 below).

Step 2: Inspect remaining seeds

The next thing to do is sort your seeds roughly into categories and inspect them. If they’re still in a sealed packet make sure the packet hasn’t been exposed to water, torn or otherwise damaged.

For seeds in open (or damaged) packets, bags, jars, or other containers, inspect for mold, damaged shells, shrunken seeds, or other signs the seeds are no good.

Tomato seeds on a paper towel

Checking tomato seeds dried on a paper towel for mold

Toss the bad seeds. If you’re not sure whether they’re bad, you can try the germination test below.

Germination test: Place 5 – 10 seeds in a moist paper towel and place the towel somewhere warm and out of sunlight. Keep the paper towel moist and check for germination regularly. The number of seeds that sprout within the expected germination period (e.g., 7 days, 14 days, 21 days, etc. ) is the estimated germination rate of all of those seeds.

You should toss seeds with a germination rate lower than 50% unless you have lots of seed.

Step 3: Organize and inventory seeds

an assortment of seed packets on a table

Organizing the seed packets before inspecting

Once you’ve culled the bad seeds from your collection, organize them and take an inventory. That will not provide you with a quasi-count of what you already have (no need to tally the seeds individually) as well as what you lack or want. Then you can fill in your missing seeds with picks from your favorite seed catalog(s). Or, if you wound up with a whole bunch of a particular seed after your inventory, you might be able to trade it for other seeds on one of the online communities.

Finally, inventory is also a great time to organize your seeds. Label the unlabeled or hard-to-read containers. Consolidate multiple containers of the same seeds into a single container. And organize your seed box / cabinet / wall shelf so your collection is easy to identify by plant and/or group. Staring at all of those over the next few weeks of winter may help you ferment some great new ideas you can take into the next garden season.

Two shoe boxes of plant seeds organized by type

My seeds all cleaned up, inspected, labeled and organized

Have a thought about this? Leave a comment below

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About the Author

author avatar
Sage Osterfeld
I’m just a guy with nearly an acre of dirt, a nice little mid-century ranch house and a near-perfect climate. But in my mind I’m a landscaper survivalist craftsman chef naturalist with a barbeque the size of a VW and my own cable TV show. I like to write about the stuff I build, grow and see here at Sage's Acre.

2 Comments

  1. […] You can also check the viability of older seeds with a simple germination test. […]

  2. […] seed from the garden at harvest or hang on to seed packets you didn’t use up last year, now is a good time to take inventory. That way when you’re going through the seed catalogs you’re just looking for fun new seeds, […]

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