March 9, 2007 - Joanne

Heirloom Tomato Seedlings

Old Seeds – Don’t Throw Them Out Yet!

The Viability of Five Year Old Tomato Seeds

I love old seeds – heritage and heirloom, rare and unusual. I have accumulated quite a collection over the years of favorites and mine are "truly old", about 5 years old. After we moved into our house and had a baby, starting seeds indoors seemed both a luxury I didn’t have time for and didn’t have space to do. I purchased seedlings instead and supported local growers at the farmer’s market, local nursery and through friends, managing to plant a full garden of mostly heirloom tomatoes every year. This year, after nearly 5 years without seed-starting facilities, we finally have a place to keep pots warm and give seedlings light.

Seed BoxI hauled out the stock of seeds I’d been keeping cold in the wine cellar and started to sort them. Of the older seeds, I had 41 varieties of tomatoes which I’d collected – some of them we’d saved ourselves, some were bought in Europe in 2001 and some were from an early Kendall-Jackson Tomato Festival where seeds from Grandview Farms (now closed) were sold. I had read that keeping seeds cool and dark prolongs their life. What I didn’t want to do is “test viability” the traditional way of using a wet paper towel to see if seeds sprouted. I had in some packets just a few seeds of one variety left – and I didn’t want to take the risk that if a seed sprouted that it didn’t survive the transplant. Besides testing 40 varieties on paper towels is almost as much work as planting them in trays.

Makeshift HotHouse using Rubbermaid BinsWith some organic compost at hand, my son Trent and I filled two trays of small pots and sprinkled a few seeds from each variety over each one. We made sure the pots were given plenty of water and used clear overturned Rubbermaid bins as mini greenhouses on top with under-cabinet fluorescent lights. I had bought this nifty rubber heating mat for seed starting about the time we gave up on starting seeds (read 4 years ago) and this was my first try with it. Less than 5 days later 22 of the 40 pots had sprouts. So the hypothesis that you can keep seeds 4-5 years results in a positive outcome. A week later 33 of the 40 have sprouted. As out writing, two weeks later 35 of the 40 varieties have sprouted.

Now I have to transfer the seedlings to bigger pots and keep them alive until April when I plan to plant them. Next up for us is old Melon and Sweetpea seeds. I can comfortably have 4 trays growing but I can only have room to start one seed tray at a time. Then I’ll start the newer tomato seed. This year, if all goes as planned, I’ll have little plants to share with friends and neighbors and I’ll have to save the seeds for next year.

Heirloom Tomato Seedlings - Testing the Viability of Old Seeds
Ways to test your other seeds: A well done article on Testing Seed Viability at Suite 101.

How to Save Tomato Seeds from GardenWeb

Gro-Mat Seed Propogation Mat and Frame

Gro-Mat - 16 x 22 with Frame
Gro-Mat - 17 x 37 with Frame

Varieties I tested for Viability - Heirloom TomatoesVarieties I tested viability of in 2007:
Abe Lincoln, Arkansas Traveller , Black From Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Blondkopfchen , Brandywine. Cosmonaut Volkov Red, Costaluto Genovese, Evergreen, Fantastic, Farmer’s Market G2 (saved), Gardener's Delight, Gold Medal, Green Grape - T&M England, Green Zebra, Iles Yellow Latvian, Isis Candy, Marizol Baratha/Baratka, Middleton Farms Green Plum, Mirabel, Mirabel German, Optimus, Orange Farmer's Market, Orange Russian, Paragon, Peppermint, Potato Leaf White, Pruden's Purple, Red Calabash, San Marzano, Snow White, Stupice, Tangerine, Taxi, Tuscany, Yellow Gooseberry and Yellow Marble.

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