Seed Saving – How Long Can You Keep Seeds?

perennial Christmas Lima beans in jar

The practice of saving seeds is as old as agriculture itself, and dates back to over 10,000 years ago. Early human civilizations harvested seeds and selectively bred crop plants to create domesticated varieties which displayed specific desirable traits.

Saving seeds has many benefits in the present day too, it’s a very cost effective way to grow herbs and vegetables, it allows gardeners to develop better varieties which do best in their location and climate, it helps preserve heritage varieties and it’s a great way to increase self-reliance.

When saving seeds, it’s very important for gardeners and farmers to maintain a stock of seeds which is fresh and viable, that will germinate and grow into healthy plants when sown.

The Best Ways to Store Seeds

Seeds need to be kept in a cool dry place for maximum storage life. When saving many varieties of seeds, it’s best to have some means of organising them, such as in envelopes, with the name of the plant, and the date collected marked clearly. Envelopes ideally should be arranged in alphabetical order too!

packet of broad bean seeds
Seeds are usually sold in envelopes, which can be reused for the same plant variety once they’re finished – don’t mix old and new seeds!

The problem with seeds is that they can’t be stored indefinitely, and to complicate the matter further, different seeds can be kept for different periods of time. Knowing how long to keep seeds can get confusing, so to make it easier, we can classify seeds into three categories:

  1. Short storage time periods – store for less than one season (< 1 year)
  2. Medium storage time periods – store for up to or at least 3 years (1-3 years)
  3. Long storage time periods – store for five years or longer (>5 years)

How to Label Stored Seeds

When storing seeds, it’s important to label them for future reference. At the very least, a seed envelope or container label should contain the following information:

  • Plant name
  • Plants Variety
  • Date collected (MM/YY)

For example, a label could read Tomato ‘Roma’ 10/21

An additional piece of information which may be helpful in maintaining a fresh supply of seeds is:

  • Use by date

By using the seed storage list shown below, we can determine if seeds can be stored for short, medium and long periods, and work out how many years we can keep them, which will either be 1 year, 3 years or 5 years after the collection date. Writing down the use-by-date makes it easier to know if seeds are good to use, without having to refer to a seed saving list.

To make seed sowing much easier, the following information can also be included in a label:

  • When to Sow (months of year, such as Sep-Mar)
  • Notes (for any extra information)

Here’s an example of an envelope used by a community seed bank project I jointly set up many years ago:

seed envelope label for seed saving
An example of a seed envelope label used by a community garden as part of a seed saving project

Seed Storage List – How Many Years Can Seeds be Kept?

Seeds not to be kept longer than one season (short time periods)

  • Corn
  • Leek
  • Onion
  • Parsnip
  • Spinach

Seeds can be stored up to at least three years (medium time periods)

  • Beans
  • Carrot
  • Celery
  • Chard
  • Eggplant
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Pumpkin
  • Salsify
  • Squash

Seeds can be kept five years or longer (long time periods)

  • Beets
  • All Brassicas (Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Collards, Kohlrabi)
  • Chicory (Endive, Escarole, Radicchio)
  • Cucumber
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Melons
  • Mustard
  • Peppers
  • Radish
  • Rutabaga
  • Sunflower
  • Tomato
  • Turnip

Using this system, it’s easy to tell when collected seeds are no longer viable, and need to be replaced with fresh ones!

3 Comments

  1. tonytomeo says:

    It always seems that the seeds that I want to know the longevity of are those that never make the list. I have been pleasantly impressed with many though.
    It seems odd that seed of related vegetables are on different lists, as some do not last long, while related seeds last a few years.

  2. ztube says:

    Do you think coffee cans work for storing seeds? My basement is old, damp and drystack stone, I am not sure if this would be a good location and there is not enough room in the fridge. I have a lot of seeds?

    1. Angelo (admin) says:

      Fridge? They need a cool dry place, such as in a pantry cupboard, but definitely not in the fridge, that’s way too cold! Basement sounds too damp, depending on your climate, somewhere in the kitchen would be better, if you can store food, you can store seeds.

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