What To Look For When Buying Seeds

How Are Your Seeds Cared For Before You Get Them?

What to look for when buying seeds.

Are your seeds fried before you get them?

Do you know where your packet of seeds has been? Do you know how they have been treated before you buy them? Are you sure they were treated well so that they will be as viable as they possibly can be when you plant them? If you cant answer these questions then perhaps its not your fault that your seeds did not germinate. It could well be that your seeds were dead when you got them.

I am sure that at one time or another you have bought a packet of seeds, planted them, waited and nothing has happened. For many, they consider that they did something wrong, and sometimes you do. Some seeds are finicky about their growing conditions and wont grow unless the conditions are exactly right for them. This is why its important to always follow the growing instructions for seeds to have success. Unfortunately not all seed companies provide instructions for difficult seeds or they do and you don't read them. Always remember that even the professionals don't get all their seeds to germinate either. However no seed will germinate if its not been treated well before it gets to you.

Most seeds are fairly tough. They have a protective coating that helps to keep them moist inside and guard them from the rigors of the world. Most have to endure winters outside and hope they have fallen a an area that is favorable for them to grow the following year. However tough does not mean invulnerable. Treating seeds with care and storing them in the best way to keep them viable for the greatest length of time will help ensure that they will grow into healthy plants. Indeed that they will grow at all.

First lets look at the life of a seed in the wild.
It grows on the mother plant, it ripens and then gets dispersed in some manner. It then falls to the ground and waits. In many cases this means waiting though the cold winter months for spring and moisture to arrive so it can hopefully sprout. The seed lays dormant while it is cold. Therefore storing seeds in a cool to cold environment will keep them in that dormant stage for long periods of time. Indeed this is how all seeds are stored in seed banks the Svalbard Global Seed Vault which is located high above the arctic circle. Scientists have long known that keeping seeds cold, dark and low humidity will keep them viable for long periods of time. So obviously keeping them under other conditions is not going to be good for their viability. Note. This does not apply to seeds from tropical plants that's a whole different story.

So where has your seed packet been?
Now let us consider that packet of seeds you might buy in the store. This could be a big box store, hardware store or garden center.
First where is it when you saw it? On a rack with lots of other seed packets in a nice warm heated store. It's stuck up in the air with lots of warm air circulating around it. Is this a good environment for seeds? NO.

Seed rack in store. In bright light, next to card racks and backed by plants. Humidity will be high near the plants and bright light and heat is not ideal for seed viability.

How long has it been on that rack?
If you are fast you might be able to get to the seeds when they first arrive on the rack. Then they wont have been out in the warm store for that long. However most people come to get their seeds long after they have been sitting on that rack. How long have they been there, weeks? Months? All that time in a warm store.

Where is the rack located?
Good stores will put them far inside the store where the temperatures are fairly even, but I have seen many stores put them in windows where the sun beats down on them during the day heating up the seeds. Is that seed going to be viable when you do plant it? Unless it's very tough, probably not.

How did your seed packet get to the rack in the first place?
Most likely it came in a truck. Packed in a box. That might be fine but it depends on where that truck has been. Has it been moving through sunny hot climates before it got to your store? Its possible that box could have been left on the loading dock in the sun for hours, maybe longer getting hotter and hotter. Seeds don't like that.

How far has it travelled to get to your local store. Or even your online store?
Don't assume that the seeds you buy are grown here. A large proportion of them are not. Most large seed companies wont tell you where their seeds come from but even the companies that have their own farms often buy in seeds from elsewhere. Many of these seeds come from Holland, Germany, Poland and China. Yes, I was surprised too. Often the seeds are travelling very long distances across oceans before they reach the wholesaler, who may then repackage them into those colorful packets that you buy in the stores. In some instances its not even clear what year the seeds were grown in before they reach you. They could be years old and have been sitting in a warehouse somewhere for a long time before they were packaged and put out for sale.

This rack is outdoors in bright sunshine! This is just death to seeds!

How was the seed processed and stored to begin with?
A large proportion of seed companies don't store their seeds in cold conditions. Having been to many different seed conferences and talked to other seed growers I am always shocked to find how many of them store their seeds. Many small companies just keep them in boxes in their house. Others have company buildings but because they are using it all the time its heated. This might be fine if you can sell your seed on very fast to your buyers but its never a good place to keep seed for even a few days.

Is your seed dated?
Surprisingly most seed packets don't have any kind of date on them. Either a sell by date or a date when the seeds were harvested. This means that you could be buying packets that are years old. Just where has that seed packet been stored and for how long? One of the reasons that some seed companies do this is because the seed may be several years old if it has traveled the world before it got to your seed packet. Another is so they can sell last years seed packets and not take a loss on seeds that were not so popular. This can be a perfectly acceptable thing to do If the seeds were stored under the right conditions during this time, but most of the time they are not, just stuck in some warehouse somewhere that is usually not climate controlled to keep it cool in the summer.

Does the company you buy from test their seeds for viability.
All companies that sell seeds should do this, especially if they are buying seeds in from other sources, but often they don't. If they are growing, harvesting and processing their own seeds they should know its good. But as we saw above many seeds travel long distances to the supplier. Often they then immediately repackage them and send them out to you. What they should do is check to see if they germinate first. Some do, a lot don't, it takes time and they want to sell their seeds immediately not waste time sitting on inventory. So they cut corners. Even reputable companies can sometimes get a bad batch which is past on to the consumer. Some companies will tell you if they do trials others not. If they are growing and harvesting all their own seeds then its likely they check as they are using the same seed to grow their own plants.

So what should you do.
Buy seed early. Buy from somewhere that keeps their seed well or from racks that are in good locations well away from sunshine, drafts, temperature changes. Don't buy from outside racks unless it's a temporary show or venue. Check to see if the seeds have a date on them. If they don't be cautious, not pay a lot for non dated seeds.
Check you supplier and see if they say how they store their seeds. If possible go with someone who explains how they store their seeds.

What you should not do.
NEVER buy seeds in summer or leftover seeds late in the year. Unless they are really cheap and you don't really care if they don't come up. Never buy from racks that are outside on a permanent basis or ones located in windows or near heating vents, radiators or other environmental factors that would not make seeds happy.

Now you know what to look for, you are a savvy seed buyer. This does not mean that all your seeds will come up even the experts have problems growing all seeds and even good companies have problems with seeds sometimes, so don't feel bad if not all your seeds come up. If none come up then there is a problem, if some do then it could be you or the seed. The more you grow and experiment they more you will learn. Don't be afraid to try. Seeds are inexpensive and experimenting can be fun!

How Floral Encounters Handles Seed.

We cherish our seeds. Each seed is a little life bundle just waiting to sprout forth. We think of each and every one as a tiny child and we try to respect and look after them in the same way. They need care, attention correct storage and climate conditions to keep them at their best. Even when we send them out into the world to grow in your garden we try to give them to best opportunity to get there as strong and healthy as they can be.

We grow all our own seeds. Yes we do buy seed to grow, it's the only way we can get new and different plants to grow. Often these won't be organic when we get them so we need to grow them on at least two years before they are producing organic seeds for us. Sometimes we have to buy seed from overseas because we can't get the interesting and different plants we want to grow and sell here. In some cases even when we have bought from a 'local' dealer it turned out that the seeds were still coming from overseas, being bought in bulk by the seed companies and then repackaged and sold domestically. A surprisingly a large number of seed companies do this

Once our plants are established we can begin to collect seed from them. The raw material comes directly from our fields to a cool seed storage barn. Ours is located under dense tree cover so it stays as cool as possible throughout the year. Once the seed material arrives it may be laid out on racks to fully dry or if already dry stored in bins until we have the time to process it. Summer is a busy time and we often don't have time to process the seeds immediately. No seed company I have ever visited processes immediately, summer is too busy. As soon as possible we thresh and remove as much bulk material from the seeds as possible. The seeds are still not clean but the amount of material is reduced enough that we can store it in a cooler environment.

Once we have time we begin to clean the seeds. This involves many steps to remove the unwanted material and leave only the seeds. As we state in are FAQ it takes an enormous amount of effort to remove all the material from the seeds unless many thousands of dollars are spent on seed cleaning machines which we can't yet afford on our little farm. We are working on it but it's a slow process.
Once we have removed as much material as possible from the seeds they are labeled and dated then stored in bulk in refrigeration units that are designed to keep a constant humidity and temperature. All our seeds remain there until they are sold directly to you.

We package our seeds for each order. This ensures that all the seeds you buy have been stored at the best possible temperature for the longest possible time thus keeping the seeds in the best possible condition before they are sent to you.
We also date our seeds with the year that they were harvested so you know how old the seed you are getting is. In almost all cases we use seed grown in year before so a packet marked 'harvested in 2016' would be seed for use in 2017. Occasionally we use older seed if we did not grow that seed in a particular year or if the harvest failed. If stored in the ideal conditions most seeds will remain viable for many years, some are reported to last up to 30 years in the wild. This means if you put your seeds in your refrigerator as soon as they arrive they may stay viable for many years so you don't have to plant them all at once if you don't want to. Dating seed ensures that you know exactly how fresh the seed you are getting is and when it was grown.

When shipping our seeds we take all our orders directly to the post office and post them inside the building. This ensures that they stay as cool as possible for as long as we can manage. We don't place them in hot mail boxes or give them to open air mail carriers. This is especially important during hotter summer months. In this way the seeds we offer are as fresh and viable as they can possibly be.

So our seeds are shipped directly to you from our cooled storage giving them the least possible time in less than idea conditions. So if you buy our seeds you know exactly where they have been and how they were treated until they were sent to you.

We always recommend that you place your seeds in the refrigerator as soon as they arrive and that you keep them their until planting. If you don't use the whole packet then put the rest back. Use them again next year, they should be fine.

Choose your seeds wisely and enjoy the beauty they can offer for one or many years to come.

Janice Hazeldine PhD is the owner and head grower of Floral Encounters an organic Medicinal Herb farm that is also a designated sanctuary for pollinators.