It’s a big temptation when you see all those seed packets 50% off, or at really cheap clearance prices. They are online, in mailed catalogues, and beckoning from the shrinking garden section at your local big box store. In the name of frugality, some gardeners gleefully stock up, but cheap and older seed is not always a money saver.
To understand why, we have to look at three things: how all those seeds gets into packets, what quality of seed went into the packet, and how long that seed remains viable.
Larger seed companies often grow some of their own stock, but virtually all seed companies contract out to seed farms to produce various varieties they sell. There are also seed resellers, who repackage commodity seed. Seeds are harvested from mature plants and delivered in time for the next sales cycle.
Next step is cleaning and processing. Some seed companies perform genetic testing in this stage (for example, to test for contamination from genetically engineered crops), but reputable seed companies perform germination testing at a state or private lab. There are vegetable seed label and germination rate requirements as part of federal law, and also a patchwork of state regulations. All of these regulations are meant to foster trust in agricultural seed commerce and ensure the customer gets the plant they expect an appropriate level of viable seed. Bear in mind these are minimum germination rates. Most reputable, longstanding seed companies, particularly those that sell to market and commercial growers, maintain higher standards for their own seed.
Right now, the seed for next season is “Packed for 2015,” meaning it was grown in 2014 and is expected to be planted in 2015. What goes on clearance at the end of the year is last year’s seed. Regulations only specify the germination rates of seed going into the packet, not what it is at the time of purchase. Given that excess seed from one year may be stored by the seed company and repackaged for the next if it continues to meet the targeted germination rates*, why would seed companies clear out old stock?
- If the seed is already is small packets for resellers, it is not worth the time and expense of returning
- If the seed is already warehoused in small packets, it is not worth repackaging
- The seed is expected to fail to met the minimum germination rate, and therefore cannot be repackaged
The first two above are opportunities for gardeners to get a good deal. The last may mean throwing good money after bad seed. So how is a gardener to know? If you understand how long a seed is viable under good storage conditions, and how likely it is to germinate in the first place, you can better assess your risk. You can start by downloading our new Seed Germination Reference Chart, which outlines the minimum federal requirements, the typical longevity, and the optimum time to seed germination, which will help if you are conducting seed germination tests on your old stock. These numbers are not set in stone — well stored seed can last much longer — but if you are buying seed you don’t know:
- If the original germination rate exceeded the minimum standard.
- If the seeds were stored in a proper manner, instead of in a hot warehouse or in a seed rack outdoors. Reputable seed companies store in climate controlled conditions: retailers often do not, or do not consistently.
- If it’s a retail seed rack, the seed may be last year’s stock: check the label for the “Packed By” statement .
- Flowers, even flowers that are often consumed such as nasturtiums, are not covered in federal requirements.
- Seeds often lose seed vigor before they fail to germinate entirely, so leave yourself a cushion of time.
I recommend that gardeners usually purchase new seed direct from seed companies and then save seed in optimal conditions for use in following years. But in some cases, buying on clearance direct from a seed company is usually a good bet. And if your local nursery keeps their seeds indoors in a climate controlled building, that’s another good option.
Meanwhile, check out our new chart!
* Please note that the company is required by federal law to use the same lot number, so the year grown is kept in seed company records.