When you are depending on a survival or victory garden to feed your family, it is imperative that you have viable seeds to sow. We decided to take two cans of 8-year-old non-hybrid survival garden seeds and put them to the test.
Can a #10 can of garden seeds be depended on to grow a survival garden? Cans of non-hybrid garden seeds, packaged for long term storage, can produce a survival garden within a limited time frame. Cold storage temperatures significantly increase the length of time that seeds are viable.
In this article, we will share with you the results of our experiment, using two cans of garden seeds that were 8 years old, and share some of the things we have learned about seed germination.
Our Canned Garden Seed Experiment
The recent pandemic has motivated us to step up our food production this year. We are seeing supply shortages and economic challenges that are quite concerning. We have produced fresh fruits and vegetables on our little homestead for years, but we became concerned for those that may have to produce their first garden this year in order to survive the chaos.
We remembered a couple of #10 cans of survival seeds that we had picked up back in 2012. If we had to depend on the seeds in those cans, would we be able to feed our family? The seeds were 8 years old and had been stored in a cool, basement.
You can read about this challenge in our post, Canned Garden Seeds: Peace of Mind or Waste of Money? or you can check out the video on YouTube at
These survival seeds were packaged for long term storage and kept in a cool basement storage room. We’ll see exactly how those seeds performed after a little basic seed germination education.
Factors that Influence Seed Germination
You only have to look at the weeds that are thriving in your garden to understand that many species are quite resilient. My father-in-law was famous for saying, “One year failed weeding equals 9 years weed seeding.”
Nature is quite good at naturally encouraging seed germination. Wilderness and forested areas are a beautiful example of naturally occurring plant reproduction. Unfortunately, that natural resiliency doesn’t always transfer to the seeds we want to sprout in our gardens.
Environmental Factors That Influence Seed Germination
Let us review a few factors in the environment that influence the ability of seeds to germinate.
Temperature is a trigger that will initiate germination. Some plant species require the soil to be warmed to a certain temperature while other plants will only germinate when the soil is cool.
Spring crops (lettuce, carrots, beets, radishes) will typically germinate between 45-70°F while summer crops (beans, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers) will not germinate until the temperature reaches 60-85°F.
Seeds will vary when it comes to how much light is required for germination. Some seeds require darkness to germinate, such as tomatoes and onions. Other seeds, such as lettuce, must be planted on the surface of the soil because they require light for germination.
In our experiment, spinach had only a 10 percent germination rate but sprouted very well in the garden. This may have been due to the amount of light provided in the germination test.
Soil pH Level
Soil that is too acidic or too alkaline may inhibit germination and seedling growth. Vegetable gardens are best when the soil pH is neutral. A pH of 6.5 is ideal but most garden vegetables will still thrive in a soil pH of 6.0 to 7.0.
Seeds are intentionally dried to create a dormancy stage. Water activates the germination process in the seed cells. The seed absorbs water, which softens the outer seed coat and activates the enzymes responsible for growth.
Too much water will cause seeds to rot instead of sprouting. Too little water prevents the seed from successfully producing a healthy seedling.
Seeds are alive and need to breathe. They require oxygen during storage as well as for germination to take place. Oxygen provides the seed with aerobic respiration that gives it energy to grow. Waterlogged seeds may drown in soggy soil.
Seeds need to be planted at the correct depth. Each seed has only a certain amount of stored energy to reach the surface and access sunlight and oxygen.
Growth Medium (Soil)
A seed contains all the nutrients needed to sprout. Starting seeds in a soil with fertilizers or additives may affect germination. If you choose to use fertilizers, wait until after your seedlings are established. Direct-sow seeds in soil that is rich in well-rotted organic matter that has been prepared for gardening.
Potting soil is often too rich in nutrients, doesn’t drain well, and has too many large particles to be ideal for starting seedlings. The best growth medium for starting seeds will be made from a mixture of soil or compost, sand, vermiculite or perlite, and peat moss. Seedlings can be transferred as soon as their first true leaves have emerged.
Internal Seed Factors that Influence Germination
In addition to environmental factors, there are also factors in the seed itself that will influence germination.
Original Seed Quality or Vitality
Not every seed that is harvested has the innate ability to reproduce. I have a bag of New Zealand white clover sitting on my desk. It states that the germination rate tested on November 2019 is 85 percent. That means, at the time of testing 5 months ago, 15 percent of the seeds did not sprout.
Some seeds may not have reached full maturity before harvest or others may be defective. Depending on the variety of seed we may expect higher or lower germination rates.
Time is an enemy to seed germination rate. As seeds age the ability to sprout and grow diminishes. The variety of seed plays a determining factor in the viability as it ages. Many vegetable garden seeds may only have a reasonable germination rate for 3-5 years.
The seeds with the highest germination rate in our experiment were green beans and tomatoes. We were able to get a 90 percent germination rate after 8 years of storage.
Internal Dormancy Requirements
Some seeds require cold stratification or dormancy conditions to be met before they can be viable.
The better the storage conditions, the longer the seeds will remain viable. Seeds should be stored in a cool, dry, dark environment. Garden seeds stored between 65-70°F will achieve an average shelf life. Every 5-6°F drop in storage temperature has the potential to double the shelf life of the seeds.
Seeds stored in a sealed container in a 45°F root cellar may stay viable for a very long time. Seed banks freeze seeds to achieve an indefinite shelf life.
How to Test Seed Germination Rate
There are a few different ways to test the germination rate of seeds. Some of these work better than others.
Float Seed Germination Test
Seed viability can be checked using the “floating method”, but the accuracy is fairly low. In our experiment, the number of seeds from the float test did not correlate with the number of seeds that actually sprouted using the paper towel method.
Floating seeds are indicative of “bad” seeds that will not germinate. We covered the seeds with water in a transparent cup and waited for 15 minutes. Then we recorded the number of seeds that were floating.
Paper Towel Seed Germination Test
Germination rates can be tested, with reasonable accuracy, by placing seeds on a wet paper towel inside of a Ziplock bag and placing the bag in a warm area out of direct sunlight.
Watch the bag to ensure that the paper towel stays moist, and mist if necessary. Do not overwater or the seeds may drown.
We planted 10 seeds of each variety on each damp paper towel and recorded the information on the outside of the bag. Planting 10 seeds makes it very simple to calculate the percentage of seeds that germinate.
Actual Germination Test
Plant seeds in a seed starting medium, place in a warm sunny area or under grow lamps, and watch to see what percentage of seeds germinate. This is the most reliable method because it mimics what you will actually get when you start your seeds under similar conditions.
How to Build a Survival Seed Bank
I prefer to create my own seed bank instead of relying on a #10 can of seeds that someone else has selected for me. Creating my own seed bank gives me the freedom to meet the unique criteria of my home garden.
Personalize Your Survival Seed Bank
- Select seed varieties that will thrive in your climate.
- Grow vegetables that you like to eat.
- Balance seed selection with a variety of vitamins and nutrients.
- Include both cold weather and warm weather crop seeds to extend the harvest.
- Save the right amount of seeds for your family size and needs.
You may want to check out our post, Best Strategies for Growing a Reliable Survival Garden to learn more about plants you should consider growing to feed your family.
Store Non-Hybrid or Heirloom Seeds
In a survival situation, you will likely need to save seeds from your harvest for next year’s garden. It is important to store non-hybrid or heirloom seeds in your seed bank. Hybrid seeds will not produce plants that are true to the parent. If you save seeds from a hybrid pumpkin, you may wind up with gourds or something else the next year.
Sometimes the results aren’t that dramatic, but you don’t want to take chances when your food supply depends on the seeds you have saved.
Ideal Containers for Survival Seed Bank
Seeds need to be kept in a dry, dark, cool environment. They need to be protected from the outside environment. I like to make sure that we keep ours organized so that I know what I have and where to find it.
Seeds can be stored in a plastic tote, plastic buckets with lids, #10 cans with a plastic lid, in containers in a file cabinet … anything that keeps them organized, cool, dark, and dry. I like to put seeds that we have saved in old prescription pill bottles, vitamin supplement bottles, or glass canning jars.
Ideally, the seeds should be in individual seed packets or containers with planting instructions printed on the label. It’s a good idea for the skilled gardener as well as the newbie. When your life depends on your ability to produce a crop, written instructions are very useful.
8 Year-Old Canned Survival Seed Experiment Results
The results of our seed germination experiment are below. Note that there is a significant inconsistency between the paper towel test and the float test. I do not think that the float test is an accurate method to assess seed germination rates.
The onion seeds showed no evidence of germination after 14 days in the paper towel test. Six onion seeds floated in the float test indicating a 40 percent germination rate.
We planted two containers of onion seeds to grow starts. After 30 days, none of the seeds had germinated. We planted other seeds a week later and those had germinated (right lower corner).
Radish seeds appeared to germinate well at 90 percent in both tests.
They aren’t thriving in the garden. Sometimes older seeds are less vigorous. We will see how they progress throughout the spring.
Spinach seeds performed very poorly in both of our germination tests. The spinach seeds had a 10 percent germination rate in the paper towel test and 20 percent in the float test.
However, they germinated very well in the garden. Perhaps light was a factor.
The cauliflower seeds only had a 20 percent germination rate in the paper towel test but had a 70 percent rate in the float test.
About 30 percent of the cabbage seeds germinated in the paper towel test but according to the float test 100 percent should germinate.
The pea seeds germinated at a rate of 30 percent on the paper towel test and 100 percent according to the float test. After 30 days in the garden soil, we replanted our peas due to lack of germination.
The beet seeds had a 40 percent germination rate after 14 days. However, all 10 of the seeds floated in the float test which meant that none of the seeds should germinate.
Carrots had a 70 percent germination rate in the paper towel test. According to the float test, 60 percent should germinate.
The lettuce seeds showed no evidence of germination after 14 days. Lettuce seeds require light to sprout so this may have been a limiting factor in the paper towel test. However, the float test only gave the lettuce seeds a 10 percent germination rate.
None of the lettuce seeds germinated in the garden while other lettuce seeds sprouted nicely.
Half of the cucumber seeds had germinated by 14 days. The float test indicated a 90 percent germination rate.
Corn seeds had a 60 percent germination rate in the paper towel test. The float test indicated a 100 percent germination rate.
Yellow Summer Squash Seeds
All 10 of the yellow squash seeds floated indicating a zero percent germination rate. Fifty percent of the seeds germinated in the paper towel experiment but the sprouts seeded a bit weak.
Zucchini had only a 10 percent germination rate on both the paper towel and the float tests.
Bush Bean Seeds
The green beans were quite happy with a 90 percent germination rate in the paper towel experiment and 100 percent in the float test.
Cantalope had a very low germination rate of only 20 percent in the paper towel test and zero percent in the float test.
Sweet Pepper Seeds
The sweet pepper seeds never germinated in the paper towel test. According to the float test they should have a 40 percent germination rate.
We sprouted two varieties of tomato seeds with exactly the same results. Ninety percent germination on the paper towel test and 50 percent success in the float test.
Eggplants germinated well at 70 percent in the paper towel test. The float test results were similar at 80 percent germination rate.
Butternut Winter Squash Seeds
Butternut squash failed miserably in both germination tests. No evidence of germination in the paper towel test and all of the seeds floated in the float test.
Victory Garden Success Begins Today
There is a sense of security in purchasing a #10 can of garden seeds and just tucking it away in case you ever need it. Just make sure that you purchase a new can every 5 years. Hang on to that old can because some of the seeds will likely remain viable for quite a while. That will help you be sure to have viable seeds when you need them the most.
A better plan is to develop your personalized survival seed bank and purchase new seeds every few years to build your supply. One step better is to learn to save the seeds from your victory garden every year. It saves money and builds a critical survival skill, along with a supply of fresh seeds adapted to your climate.
Thanks for being part of the solution!Jonathan and Kylene Jones