Shelf life for seeds?

(Question)

Recently, a food and wine pairing prompted me think that I need more spice in my life.
Tasting a leek or chive stalk, remaining in the garden after I was going to mulch it over, made me reconsider vegetable gardening, in addition to the flowers which remain. One of the stalks is firm, and the other has bent over the protruding root.
I also found some of my late mother’s seed containers. How long do these last? Is the best thing to just try them and see? Summer seems receptive to gardening this year, so maybe I’ll transplant the leek or chive.

(Answer)

Thank you for writing to the Toronto Master Gardeners.

The viability of seeds depends on their individual species and the condition in which they are stored; I quote from Growing from Seed: A Toronto Master Gardeners Guide:

Some seeds have a very short viability and will only successfully germinate if planted immediately. Examples include most gentians, pulsatillas, cyclamen, oleander and some primulas.

Generally speaking, however, seeds remain viable for some length of time. As a rule, seeds should be able to be successfully germinated as follows:

  • annuals for 2-3 years
  • vegetables for up to 10 years
  • perennials for 2-20 years – sometimes more (Scientists have germinated lotus seeds over 1000 years old found in pyramids)

Seeds may be nonviable and, therefore, not able to be germinated because they have been kept too long and the food stored inside the seed has been used up. They may also have been stored incorrectly in a warm, damp environment or have had immature or even absent embryos.

We hope this general guideline helps you in determining whether it is worthwhile to try germinating the seeds. Good luck!