New Year's Resolutions: Out with the old, in with the new?

Are you making any garden related New Year's resolutions?

One of my annual New Year's resolutions is to learn to be more self-sufficient and reduce my planetary impact. One way we do this in the garden is by saving seeds from the plants we grow. But saving leftover seeds that were not planted is a green practice as well. So, before you start making your list of new seeds to buy, pull out your box or bag or jar or pile of old seeds and take stock.

last season's seeds. last season's seeds.

Some gardeners start fresh every year, throwing out any seeds they did not plant the previous spring. The impulse is understandable, no gardener wants to waste precious space by planting seeds that will not grow. But I'll let you in on a little seed-trade secret, many of the seeds you order were saved and stored from previous years, and you can do the same thing at home. The trick is knowing if the seeds are still viable. So how can you tell before you plant them?

Each year, we do germination tests on our saved seeds and old seeds to determine which still have high germination rates. Here's an easy DIY version for checking germination rates of your old seeds that will help you save money and other resources- two great New Years resolutions in one simple act that's good for your garden!


  • Strong paper towels
  • Water
  • Zip locks (reused ones are fine!)
    Counting out the seeds. Counting out the seeds.
  • Light bulb
  • Plastic or glass bin (optional)


Wet the paper towel and gently ring out. Flatten the paper towel and place 10, 50, or 100 seeds in one quadrant. If we have lots of seeds we count out 100, for smaller batches 10 is ok. Fold the paper towel in quarters so that the seeds are sandwiched in the middle. Press flat. The goal it to have complete moisture

Folding up the paper towel. Folding up the paper towel.

contact around each seed. Place the paper towel in the ziplock bag and seal. Label the bag with the name of the variety, date, number of days to germination, and the seed count. If you have a very warm spot that is consistently around 72 degrees, you can place your tests there. If not, a small light bulb in a hardware store metal bell shaped fixture will work. Just hang it so that it is close enough to throw off some heat but not so close that it will melt or burn the bag. If you are doing multiple germination tests at the same time, you can rig up the light bulb in a plastic bin with a lid. Consider it your very own home germination chamber (and fire hazard).

Check each bag when the seeds should be germinating. Look for small sprout tips. We check for a few days and keep count as some seeds will germinate earlier and some later. Germination rates are always listed as percentages. If you put 10 or 100 seeds, it's easy to calculate your germination rate for the batch. If 8 out of 10 seeds germinated, you have an 80% germination rate.  Record your germination rates with the seeds.

Checking germination. Checking germination.

Compost the seeds that have less than 50% germination rate. Chances are even the ones that can muster germinating will not be that vigorous. For the seeds that you can count on, make sure to store them in airtight, dry, and dark conditions until spring.

9 thoughts on “New Year's Resolutions: Out with the old, in with the new?”

  • MrBrownThumb

    Good tips.

    I usually don't even test my older seed, I will just go ahead and direct sow them in the garden. If they germinate, great! If they don't I didn't really lose anything.

  • ken

    Thanks for the comment! Sounds like you have a Ruth Stout-ish garden? Some folks have the space to take the "wait and see" approach. For us, especially with seeds that need to be started early for transplant, it's good to know what we're working with in terms of germination rates ahead of time.

  • Tovah

    Great post. I've done this before, usually with decent success, but there are always some that end up growing mold on them before they can germinate. Maybe the area wasn't warm enough and I should try the lightbulb trick. Also, I'm guessing this wouldn't work with CFL's since they don't emit much heat?

  • ken

    Good point about the bulbs Tovah- you need to use a regular (small) light bulb. As for mold- that happens. Could be because of the lack of airflow, temp, and in some cases, the seeds that mold would not have germinated anyway. It's kind of unavoidable and part of the process. Let me know if adding heats to your germ tests helps at all.

  • MrBrownThumb


    I wish I had a Ruth Stout-ish garden! It is a postage size inner-city garden, that is big mess and more work than it need to be. My sink or swim philosophy, in regards to seeds, wouldn't work so well for your purposes but I think would work for backyard gardeners. Also, I think that my understanding that seeds and seedlings are pretty tough and can be manhandled kind of helps. If I sow some and they germinate I just scoop them out of the ground and plant them where I want them to go, or thin the heck out of them.

    • ken

      Yes, I think we could all use a little benign neglect in our gardens. I love the plants that self-sow and will often let them grow, even if they are out of order or not quite in the row. Last year I had dill, Rat's Tail radish, and New Zealand spinach in odd pockets here and there. I figure if they are strong enough to overwinter or wily enough to self sow, they deserve a fighting chance.

  • keri

    To store your seeds I'm guessing old pill containers or such would work by the picture shown in the blog? I ordered a lot of seed packs but will have a small garden so I want to keep what I can for next year.

  • laurie

    Do I have to refrigerate the seeds from seed library? When I got the packs at a farmers market the person who sold them to me said they should be refrigerated for 6 weeks.

  • ken

    Any king of airtight-ish container will work. Keep them cool, dark, and dry. If you don't have a cool place to keep them you can put them in the fridge, but it's not necessary. If you do have them in the fridge make sure they aren't exposed to any moisture. There are a few kinds of seeds, mostly wildflowers, that need a week or so of freezer time right before planting.


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