9 May 2014

When seeds fail to germinate

Or, if at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again.

Like most gardeners (I imagine) I have a large box of seeds, the result of too many impulse buys online and in the garden centre. A magazine article or book has only to mention that this or that plant is edible and I'm straight off to find out more and, in all likelihood, add the seeds to my growing collection. I've tried to curb my curiosity but it seems to get the better of me fairly regularly so, with many tastes to try and with minimal space available, only a few seeds from each packet get sown*, the packet gets stored and, inevitably, there are still loads left for next year.  So is it a good idea to keep them?

Well, it depends on the seed and how they've been stored.  Store them in a cool, dark place (not the fridge) in paper packets (not plastic) and seeds should be good at least until their Use By date. A few will be duds from the off and will never germinate.  A few, like carrots, really are best used fresh for maximum success.  The other seeds, like you, me and the rest of the planet, are ageing slowly and imperceptibly, getting tired and, frankly, getting a bit past it. Of course I'm no longer talking about myself now. ;) Or you. Just the seeds. Plant seeds are a lot more reliable and vigorous in their youth.

This year when planning what to grow, I ruthlessly chucked out the seeds that should have been sown by 2012, if not before. It was a lot. (The photo above is the 'after' shot!) The packet of Canadian Wonder red kidney beans, exp date 2012, was kept.  I loved this plant - a bush bean, growing to about 2 ft tall with prolific fruiting.

Canadian Wonder bush beans in early August 2012
I had a long summer of all the beans I could eat from a May sowing and regular picking.  Wonder beans indeed.

Wonder beans in early September 2012.

This year's bean: After a 30 day germination, thought I may as well plant it out.
This spring, I blithely assumed that beans could be stored for years and confidently sowed about a dozen, just what I needed, into modules in fresh seed compost.**  Just one lonely bean emerged, after an extremely long wait and after I'd re-sown another 24 beans in a raised bed in the patch. Three weeks on from the outside sowing and there is nothing to be seen.  It's a mystery, especially as the soil is warm, the slugs have been kept away and there has been a good mix of sun and rain.  So, onto plan B…

Convinced the cause was the viability of the seeds, I decided to put it to the test. Seeds need warmth and enough wetness to swell and break the seed coat to germinate, so I put 40 beans on soaked kitchen paper in a plastic tray, covered with another sheet of damp kitchen paper, sealed with cling film and left on a warmish windowsill. After a six days of checking, 24 of the beans had produced a radicle (the root tip) while 16 had not.  The beans were in varying stages of germination, some with a long root and others just starting to sprout  - again, a sign of the poor quality of the beans.  Testing this way is a good way of removing the uncertainty over seed germination.  I tried the same method with some lettuce seeds and they didn't germinate at all - so in the bin they went!

The good news is that I now have bean seeds that I'll pot up and know will grow. I also know to let the last pods dry on the plant so that I can save seed for next year. (And, just in case any of the outside sown beans are simply lurking and not deceased, I'll cover the bed with fleece for a week or so and see what happens. It will be their Last Chance; you can't say I'm not being fair.)

* For varieties where only a few seeds are needed, More Veg in Devon sell smaller quantities at a lower price and have a wide range of seeds.

** As a member of Which? Gardening, I always use their recommended Best Buy because compost compositions change from year to year.  Over the past couple of years, the best buy has been J. Arthur Bower's Seed and Cutting compost, a nice, fine, free draining mix.


  1. I like using MoreVeg as I have a small garden, it doesn't stop me over ordering though. I'm glad you were able to get your beans to germinate in the end, I was sent some Drunken Woman lettuce seeds & they have failed to germinate. I might sprinkle them onto some damp kitchen paper and see what happens.. I was quite eager to try the lettuce.

    1. Gosh, yes! So would I be with a name like that!! What a great name, I wouldn't mind some of those (never mind what they taste like!!). I was given Lazy Housewife beans a few years back and managed to grow a load for seed saving.

  2. I'm working my way through your blog and love the way you've transformed an unloved piece of land into a community space. I read an article about seed saving some time ago and I think it said the larger ones, like peas and beans don't keep as well and it's best to use fresh ones each year. Starting them on damp paper's a good idea though as it always feels a waste to chuck them out! Debbie.

  3. I'm pretty good with seeds, especially vegetables, most of which I use and replace year to year. Those I don't use I usually give to someone who sells them at a local event with the money going to charity.
    Nice to see MoreVeg mentioned as I buy most of my vegetable, and some flower, seeds from them. Flighty xx

  4. Not sure that the last comment was successful so trying again

    Testing viability of old seed is a good idea saves a lot of time and effort.

  5. Very interesting! I don't have quite so many seeds, but I do still have some old ones. I tend to just sow a lot more seeds than I need, on the assumption that I'll get enough, even if the germination rate is poor. I also find that fresh seeds are not guaranteed to germinate. This year I sowed carrots from 3 new packs, and hardly any of them came up. Fortunately a second sowing has been more successful. In my experience, beans are amongst the most reliable germinators.

  6. It's good to know that I'm not the only seed hoarder!
    That wonder bean does look good....now you may just have solved the mystery of my non germinating runner beans, hardly any emerged, some actually rotted and they were in the greenhouse. They were this years seeds too....I may try the kitchen towel trick so thanks for the tip.xxx

  7. That's a good way of knowing that what you sow will definitely result in a plant. Nicely organised seed box btw!

  8. I planted some older french bean seeds and only three out of about eighteen came up. And my older courgettes haven't germinated much at all either. Surely there won't be a courgette shortage..? I was amazed at the borlotti beans that I saved last year - brilliant germination. I quite often struggle to get beans to grow for some reason. I love the picture of the beans and their little roots on the kitchen paper. So nice to see what actually happens. CJ xx

  9. I love to try something new on my garden . I don't know how many time I fail on germinate seeds, especially imported seeds. But I try again, again and again... I feel that it's a challange for me.
    Your bean look so nice... I have not already sowed the seeds this season. I have some bean seed remain. Hope they will grow well.

  10. Oh good, I am glad I am not alone in the seed hording group of shame... I had a massive, shame-inducing clear out back in January and promised myself I would be better. Cucamelon seeds? What cucamelon seeds?! Good tip on germination checking though, well worth doing before using precious compost on the non viable. All of which reminds me that I've still not down my asparagus peas...

  11. Your seed box looks a bit like mine... but so much more organised - the labels are a good idea, and one I'll be copying. Did you grow the kidney beans for the pods or to dry the beans and use them later?

  12. I'm terrible when it comes to seeds. It's like some magnetic pull to the seed stands in a garden centre. My local supermarket has even started selling them now. There's no hope if I can sneak a packet in my trolley when I'm food shopping. ;) Like you though I was ruthless this spring and ditched those which had been lingering for too long in my seed boxes. I love More Veg seeds and a delivery has just arrived this morning so I'm hoping I can get the chance to do a spot of sowing this evening.

  13. Oh what an organised looking seed box Caro :) I'm finally chucking out some lettuce leaved basil seeds with a sow by date of 2009 as only 2 have germinated this year but still I reckon I've had a good run for my money. Glad to read that you were able to muster enough 'Canadian Wonder Beans' to keep them going. Thanks for sharing the 'Which' best buy compost findings - most useful information.

  14. Am trying this with runner and borlotti bean seeds. Usually germinate and grow with no problem at all. Not this year.


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