So we’re well into the main seed sowing period of the gardening year. It’s a time of great anticipation, with compost, trays and seeds at the ready. It’s a crucial time for every gardener, a window in which the plants that will feed us and provide colourful flowers throughout the summer and into the autumn are started into life. It can be make or break for some plants which need a long growing season to reach maturity, such as celeriac and parsnip. If these plants miss their window of opportunity that’s your chance gone for another year.
So it can be incredibly frustrating, to say the least when seeds don’t appear. We’ve all experienced that sparsely populated compost where there should have been a sea of shoots or even worse the completely bare seed tray. Of course, we blame ourselves. We must have done something wrong. Did we sow them too deep or too shallow? Was the compost too dry and too wet? Was it too cold for them to germinate? All of these are possibilities but how many of us think it might be the seed that is the problem? It might be a more likely explanation than gardeners realise.
In recent years the consumer magazine Which has carried out research to determine the germination rates of selected seeds from some of the main seed suppliers in the UK. In 2007 it discovered that significantly high percentages of seeds were actually dead at the time of purchase. One company’s Delphinium seed were found, when analysed, to be 99% dead and the other 1% were unhealthy and just 15% of seeds of a variety of lettuce produced healthy plants (figures were taken from a report in The Daily Telegraph). Two years later they carried out more tests and found 7 out of 17 seed supplying companies failed to meet minimum germination standards with spring onion ‘White Lisbon’ and only 27% of a variety of pelargonium germinated. They did however praise several companies, including Nicky’s Nursery and Dobies for their overall seed health.
There are legal standards set by the EU for the germination of vegetable seeds. These minimum germination percentages vary according to different plants to reflect the natural viabilities of different seeds, for example it is 80% minimum germination for cucumbers and runner beans and 65% for carrots and leeks. I suppose I hadn’t really given it much thought but it is surprising and sobering to realise that a number of the seeds we buy are already dead, even if they are meeting the legal requirements and as Which discovered many are not even meeting these. Flower seeds are not covered by any minimum standards at all which seems quite shocking to me. I can’t think of any products that we purchase that don’t have to meet some sort of minimum standard. I can quite easily spend £20 – £30 on flower seeds in a year and the thought that I’m not getting what I paid for is annoying.
My own experience so far this year has been mixed. Most of the seeds have germinated well, particularly sweet peas, celeriac and lettuce but I’ve had my fair share of frustrations. I sowed one seed tray, half with blue larkspur and the other half white larkspur. They had exactly the same conditions. The blue larkspur are now good-sized plants hardening off in my cold frame, not one white larkspur appeared though. I resowed and 3 have so far germinated which is not enough for my cutting patch. Sarah Raven, who I purchased the seed from said they knew of no other problems with the seed but promptly sent out another packet and I have now sown another batch. Rudbeckia ‘Cappucino’ is another seed I have had problems with, 2 years in a row. The contrast between this variety and another Rudbeckia variety ‘Prairie Sun’ is incredible, with virtually every seed of the latter germinating and a measly 1 out of 20 from the ‘Cappucino’ germinating.
With my cutting patch I’m trying to grow lots of varieties in small groups of between 6 and 10. With the confined growing space of window sills and cold frames, the problems of patchy germination or complete no-shows are heightened. I, like many other gardeners don’t have the space to sow lots of seed en masse.
Perhaps though, one of the main reasons why this problem seems to be brushed under the carpet is our reluctance as gardeners to complain when our seeds don’t perform as expected. I am guilty of this, too. Some companies are reluctant to admit there is a problem and insist it must be the gardener at fault and what gardener wants their seed growing prowess called into disrepute? Others seem to have a better understanding of customer service, such as Sarah Raven. I was talking to a commercial grower recently who has experienced the vagaries of seed germination and the reluctance of companies to acknowledge the problem and he said we should all complain more. It is only then that the companies would have to take more notice of the issue.
I’d love to hear if you’ve suffered from similar seed germinating problems and whether you’ve complained or not.
Very well said! I always think it is my fault and have never complained. But I am also sometimes guilty or not following instructions to the letter. I’ll recount my experiences in a post soon. Thanks for high-lighting this problem. Christina
Hi Christina, I agree it can often be a gardener’s fault, as I’ve said above it is easy to sow seed too deeply but it is wrong that we are buying seeds where there may be no hope. If you’re a beginner it could be the difference between you starting on a life of gardening or becoming frustrated thinking you haven’t got green fingers and giving up. If the blue larkspur hadn’t germinated as well I’d have thought I couldn’t grow larkspur when in fact it would have been the seed. I’m looking forward to reading your post.
I always blame and have never considered it could be the seed. Having problems with Red Kuri seed at the moment , hmm maybe its not me ? Great article
Hi Gill, I’ve just sown some Uchikik kuri squash seeds so I’m hoping I won’t have any problems. Some seeds can be difficult, just because they have certain requirements. I think it is all to easy for seed companies to blame the gardener. It’s true it is easy to bury seeds too deeply so they exhaust their energy supply and therefore don’t show but I don’t think seed sowing is difficult. It’s frustrating that we, as seed buyers, don’t really know what we’re buying and whether the odds are stacked against us from the start.
It never occurred to me that the problem might be with the seed rather than me! I spend a scary amount on seed and take it as a matter of course that germination will be spotty, especially with unusual plants.
Hi Gardeninthewoods, I think unusual plants often have fussier requirements which might explain why they are more unusual. Quite a few plants should be sown fresh or ‘in the green’ such as Primroses. Years ago I bought a packet of primrose seeds and not one germinated. It was only later I read that they should be sown straight from the plant. It’s annoying that seed companies do this. I bought 3 primrose plants 3 years ago and they have done a nice job of self seeding around my garden without any help from myself.
I’ve never complained about seed but have complained about plants which have arrived in a poor state. I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with germination, I’ve suffered the odd few seed which just don’t germinate, but not huge amounts. It sounds as though I’ve been lucky.
Hi Jo, It seems some plants are worse than others and some companies worse than others. I think if you have good results you’re more likely to stay with that company and then have fewer problems. I’m quite often looking for specific varieties which means buying from lots of different companies.
Such a relief to know it’s probably not my fault! I’ve had no success with seeds from Lidl, and my daughter has said the same-but we haven’t complained but we NEVER buy their seeds now!
Hi Jen, I always check the dates on the seed packet to see when they were packed and when they should be sown by and I always try to buy form a seed specialist rather than a shop brand. Although as my post showed this is necessarily better. Seeds can be tricky to grow sometimes but I think the key is if you are having real problems and only small numbers are germinating or none at all I think it is most likely the seed at fault.
I’ve honestly never considered that the fault may be the seed. Like most people, I’d always automatically assume that I made a mistake or the growing conditions just weren’t right…
Hi Anna, Seeds can be quite fussy. One of the main problems is people often sow small seeds too deeply and then they exhaust their energy supply before the shoot is above the soil and able to create it’s own food from sunlight. Saying that though it isn’t right that we don’t really know when we buy a packet of seeds what the odds are on them being able to germinate.
I suspect I did that with my chive seeds. I’ve re-sown and been a bit more careful with the depth…
David Marsden said:
Very interesting, WW. I’ve had poor results this year (though I have been using up some ‘old’ seed which has turned out to a false economy – though something I do every year, usually with better success). About two quid for a packet of dead delphinium seeds, eh? Nice little earner. D
Hi David, I started a fresh this year with all new seed because I had problems last year. There does seem to be a great variance in different seeds’ storing abilities. Cornflowers for instance seem to last years and yet I know you should always buy fresh carrot seeds every year.
And there I was, thinking it was me! I knew about Meconopsis seeds in garden centres not being stored at the correct temperature,I store my own seed in the fridge until it is time to sow in January and have never had any problems at all since doing that, but thought other seed must be ok, obviosly not!!
Hi Pauline, I’ve bought a feed seeds from garden centres before and then read that they need to be sown fresh. You’ve got to wonder how fresh these seed can be when they are distributed to garden centres and then sit there for a while. I think some plants are much better being bought as an established plant and then you can collect your own seed.
I thought it was me and never thought for a second it maybe dead seed. I to have spent fortunes on seed. I do however let one plant go to seed and this does to jobs, the flowers bring in pollinators and the seeds are then resown for my own use. I have had allot of trouble with germination this year and thought it was the weather but maybe it isn’t. I have been trying to grow sweet cicily now and haven’t had a single seed germinate. I sowed in the Autumn some of the seed both in the greenhouse and in a pot outside because I was advised these need the winter weather to germinate and I have sown more in the spring and now a single one has germinated, these seeds were not cheap either so I think I maybe will be contacting the seller now. Thanks for the blogg and now I feel its not all my fault.
Hi Gaynor, Maybe the seed that needed the winter didn’t get a long enough cold spell. Seeds that need this sort of cold treatment often need a 3 – 4 week period of really quite cold temperatures. Certainly the weather here in the UK this winter probably was cold enough for long enough. You can always try and replicate the effect by putting your seed in the fridge for a couple of weeks and then sow. Best wishes WW
Am always amazed if my seeds sprout as this end of gardening is not my forte. Different seeds have different needs and thus I tend to assume that lack of show is proof of my ignorance. A great post and much needed focus on the viability or not of bought seeds.
p.s. going to dust down the cobwebs off old seed packs now and see what sprouts
Hi Laura, Mmmmm good luck with the dusty old seeds!!! I wonder how many people are like you and think it is their fault they struggle to get seeds to grow. It’s such a difficult thing for us gardeners to prove it’s not us all the time.
I’ve now reached the stage and age when I will complain 🙂 This year the germination stakes have been ok to date with a handful of exceptions. A half packet of free alpine strawberry seeds = one plant to date and a packet of cobaea scandens purpurea seeds = zilch but again a freebie packet and possibly old. The one that will be resulting in a letter soon if nothing happens is a packet of paid for aquilegia seeds. Stratified before sowing and no plants as yet 😦 I have sown enough aquilegia seed in the past to know that is not down to me. Interesting to read about the stats behind the contents of the seed packets WW- no wonder some people say that they have no joy growing from seed.
Hi Anna, That’s the thing that is so frustrating. Most gardeners know how to sow seeds and when they’ve had success in the past it shows they know what they’re doing but it does seem all too easy for seed companies to blame the gardener.
I’m having some poor results with my seedlings too.
Hi Shaheen, Don’t give up though. If you have a particular seed that hasn’t germinated at all or only a few have germinated it’s certainly worth dropping the seed company an email. It’s not too late with a lot of seeds to resow now. If it’s really small seed it’s best not to cover them too much, a little bit of vermiculite or a tiny bit of compost is more than enough. With other seeds it is meant to be twice their depth. The low light levels may have been a problem with some seeds this spring but I have had plenty of seeds germinate on my window sills. Seeds sown outdoors may have struggled with the cold and wet April. However, saying all of this it is obvious that a lot of seed that is being sold is not of a good quality. So I guess we just need to find good suppliers and stick with them.
A really interesting post and comments. I think that this is a subject that ought to be highlighted and discussed more often with a view to getting seed suppliers to change, particularly as many seeds are relatively expensive.
I sow all my seeds direct so I expect varied results but do sometimes wonder when none of a particular variety germinate. xx
Hi Flighty, Thank you. It’s a really difficult topic because it’s seems such an unknown. I think that’s why so few of us complain. Maybe the minimum germination requirement for seeds should be published on the seed packet. At least then us as buyers would at least know what we were meant to be working with.
There are some seeds, that just no matter how many times I try them they just never, ever, ever sprout for me! I desperately want fleabane around the garden popping up as it’s well known for and here I am unable to even get them to sprout even though they’re supposedly prolific!
It’s the same with Teasel, Oxeye Daisies and Red Campion; not once been successful, ever and yet these are native wild flowers that apparently WANT to grow. Bah.
I try to be kind to wildlife and feel like I’m being kicked in the teeth! Lol.
I’m amazed at those percentages of dead or unehealthy seed! I tried a whole packet of “Painted Lady” Sweet Peas and only one seed germinated. It was treated exactly the same way as the other sweet peas, that came up. I thought it was just me.
Though on the other hand, I have discovered “the heated propagator” this year and it has increased my success rate for some stuff enormously from last year.
Hi Helen, It is strange isn’t it when most of a packet of seeds doesn’t germinate especially when it’s seeds you don’t normally have problems with. Sweet peas are normally really easy so it does make you think it’s the seed. I agree though I’m sure a heated propagator is really useful. May have to invest in one for next year.
Petra Hoyer Millar said:
Fascinating post. Never knew of the % success rate standards, and really surprised that that doesn’t account for flowers. Odd. Have only recently started growing flowers from seed, as am more more of cuttings/splitting person when it comes to perennials. Recent sowings of annuals (from Sarah Raven seed) have thrived, also noticed that home grown seed did very well too. Not sure if this is of any use….
Hi Petra, I grow a lot of annuals and biennials, so all from seed and then there’s all my veg for the allotment. It has been a difficult spring for seed sowing with the dry, warm March and then the wet April and the light levels are so low. Things are picking up though and seeds that didn’t germinate the first time round are growing now.
Donna@Gardens Eye View said:
Fabulous post…many times I wonder what is going on…but now I have experimented enough and found the companies that have great rates of germination here in the US…I hate spending money for nothing.
Hi Donna, thank you. It certainly is frustrating when seeds don’t appear. Good to hear that you’ve found some reliable seed suppliers.
I’ve had problems on more than one occasion with Sarah Raven seeds. When I complained I was told “no-one else has a problem’ and the implication was that it was all my fault and nothing to do with them. I will never buy anything from her again.
On page 35 of his book “Organic Gardening”, Charles Dowding writes:
…. I sow a lot of seeds every year, often of the same vegetable but from different seed companies and I have experienced a surprising number of irregularities. For example, there are seeds which germinate poorly and unevenly, when sown at the same time as and next to other seeds of the same vegetable that are doing well. …
It is almost impossible to get any admission of such happenings from a seed company. So buyer beware! If germination is poor or growth uneven, it may not be you who is at fault.”
Hi Bilbo, I haven’t normally had problems with Sarah Raven seeds and was happy that they quickly sent out a replacement batch. I know of other seed companies that don’t even do this. I do think one of the problems is that if people don’t complain then the seed companies can never know there’s a problem. It’s a bit chicken and egg. Most growers probably don’t think it could be them so don’t complain and the seed companies don’t know their customers are having problems so if only one or two people complain they conclude it is those individuals rather than the seed. I was at one of Charles Dowding’s salad growing days recently and he was talking about the vagaries of seed germination. It’s certainly an interesting area that needs more attention.
What an interesting post – like a lot of people who have commented I have always assumed that it is my lack of skill that is at fault, or the variables such as the weather. Whilst gardening books do advise against sowing seeds that are past the ‘sow by’ dates on the packets, I wouldn’t have considered they might be old when they were packaged up. I’ve had variable germination rates too, but my biggest failure in recent years is sweet peas – I’ve hitherto assumed they were difficult, but will now have to reassess the reasons!
Caro (urbanvegpatch) said:
I love the way you always bring us such newsworthy posts! Funnily enough the only seeds I’ve had germination problems with came from Sarah Raven, bought in her shop after a trip to Perch Hill. Again, thought it was my ignorance and bad technique (on the basis that if the seeds are so expensive, they must be good – ha ha!). A few years on and I put more thought into sowing seeds, ie, actually reading the packet, and have had a lot more success. Your comment about using fresh carrot seed is interesting too; I didn’t know that until told so by The Real Seed Company (had to try and sow 1000 carrot seeds in one season – lucky that the germination rate is variable!). Having said that, my carrots from Mr Fothergill have germinated 3 years running from the same packet! We just have to persevere …
Karen - An Artists Garden said:
Such an interesting post.
I sow a lot of seeds every year, and there are some companies that I will no longer buy from as I never seem to have much luck germination their seeds.
I regularly use Nickys Nursery, as I get an excellent germination rate. Like Anna, I have been sowing seeds for long enough to know that for the most part it is not me at fault (Although I do chance it now and then by sowing old seed – or seeds that have been lurking on a sunny windowsill, ooops).
I do use Derry Watkins all the time for seed that has to be sown fresh –
And oddly the seeds I get from Wilkinsons (own brand) always seem to germinate, go figure!
Hi Karen, I’m probably going to try Nicky’s Nursery and Derry next year. I sowed french beans last week and having had such poor germination with other seeds I sowed loads of them now they’ve all germinated!! Eeek, way too many french beans on my window sill and it’s way to cold to plant them out.
I was very interested in this – have periodically had problems with germination and had always thought it was me! I am sure it often is – I never seem to get good germination on tagetes, no matter where seed comes from. I was struck though at the mention of Sarah Raven seeds and remembered I have had a problem with quite afew packets including blue larkspur, ammi, purple nicotiana and bupleurum (though I found out from Web that germination of these is erratic). I buy from SR as she does such lovely stuff- ant they are not all available elsewhere. I have had problems with being sent the wrong plants too (salvia black and blue instead of blue enigma) but have not noticed soon enough to complain – only realised when the plug plants turned out to be different later in year when flowered. I will keep an eye on this in future. I’ve also used Nicky’s seed and Chiltern seeds (and Wilkinsons!) and these have been pretty good.