Expiration Date vs Germination Rate

by Juanita Schulze

Garden seeds in company packets on display. This page explains expiration date vs germination rate.

You buy a pack of seeds and some companies put a date on it--usually it will say "packed for growing season ????" or "use until December ????"

Many people take this to mean that on such and such a date the seeds will expire.

I would like to take a few minutes here to clear up some confusion on the expiration date vs germination rate that you see on packs of seeds.

Expiration Date Vs Germination Rate

First of all, there is no law that requires a use by date to be put on a pack of seeds. That is because seeds don't expire like milk does. It is nice to have a date on milk because it does expire. 

Some companies do this but it is more of a marketing ploy than anything. It is like adding Non-GMO to seed packets. It is more of a marketing ploy because there are only a few squash and corn types that are GMO. And you have to be licensed to grow them. The every day gardener is not going to have access to them.

But once one seed company does it, the rest have to follow suit and mark expiration date vs germination rate on their seeds. To me, putting this information and an expiration date on the seeds is false advertising in that the company is trying to imply that their seeds are better than another companies' seeds because they are Non-GMO or expire on a certain date.

Expiration Date Vs Germination Rate And Non-GMO

We do say our seeds are Non-GMO because certain seed companies started this trend as a way to get an unfair advantage over other seed companies. We don't sell GMO seeds for three reasons:  we are unsure of the affect the food will have on the body, the effect on the ecological plant system and because we can't.  It takes thousands of dollars just to get the license to sell genetically modified organism seeds.

A new rule that came out last year is that seed sellers handling organic seeds, have to have an organic seed handlers license in order to say they are selling organic. Many of the seeds we sell are organic, but we cannot say this now because we are not licensed. It would cost us about one million dollars a year to have this license.

It seems though, that we have been singled out, because there are companies that are small, like we are, still advertising that their seeds are organic even though they do not have the license to do so.

Seeds do not have an expiration date. If stored correctly, they can last hundreds of years. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one such place.

What seeds do have is a germination rate. This rate is figured by taking a sample of the seeds and planting them in a controlled lab, with the perfect environment in order to find out how many seeds will germinate out of the sample. From this a rate is determined.

If I plant 18 seeds (which is what we usually do when we test germination rate) and 15 come up, then we say that we have a germination rate of 83%. We say our seeds will have a germination rate of about 80%. Usually we have a rate of 90% or better. A few things like rosemary and stevia are less but we say it on the listing.

Of course, we are not doing ours in a perfectly, controlled lab environment.

As a seller of seeds to home gardeners, there are no laws that require that I put the expiration date vs germination rate information on the seed packet. However, seed breeders are required by law to do this and have to put it on the packaging so that when I buy it in bulk, I have an idea what the germination rate is.

What companies do with the seeds left over at the end of the season, I have not been able to find out. They probably just throw them away. We used to donate ours to community gardens but then a lot of the packets started ending up online for sale. So we just destroy them now. 

One customer even bought a pack at GoodWill and got mad at us when we would not give them a refund because they underperformed. We make a little change to our pack so we know what year it was packed. The picture they sent was from a five year old pack. Not that the seeds were necessarily bad but I am sure they were not stored properly.

Seeds do not expire but their germination rate, also called virility rate, does decline. You may have noticed that some varieties of seeds were not available this year (2021). This is because they sold out in 2020 and breeders have to grow more. They will forecast and say that over the next x number of years they will sell xx number of seeds. So they will grow enough to provide the demand for the next x number of years. 

Then they will monitor the harvested crop by doing germination tests. Once the germination test drops below a certain point, they will grow more. If the variety sells out before more are grown and harvested, then we have what we have been seeing for the first time in years--zero balances. They do not grow every variety every year.

But they have no idea when they will hit this germination rate that is below standard. While there is a science behind it, it is not an exact science. And if something happens to the crop, then it will be even longer to get more stock. 

The Fortex Bush Bean is one of these. The demand was way more than the supply in 2020. It ran out before a new crop could be grown. Then the new crop was a failure so it is going to be even longer before the Fortex seed is available.

When I see a review on our seeds that says, "No date was on the packet so I do not know if they are any good", I tend to get a bit upset because we would not sell seeds that are bad. We buy from reputable companies and pay a higher price for them just to make sure our customers are getting the best seeds available. We do all of our own packing, in house. We don't send our seeds overseas to have them packed and then shipped back to us.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion out there.