Seedlings, Deliveries, Seed Germination Tests — and Limitations

May was the month of potting up seedlings, hardening them against the elements, protecting them from weather extremes, organizing and delivering seedlings, and continuing to fill seed requests. Ideally, much more would have happened!

I made four trips to several locations throughout Utah, delivering about 3,300 seedlings, traveling 2,009 miles. Unfortunately, I had to replace all four tires and have major brake repairs done during these trips, resulting in unplanned expenses amounting to four months of living expenses! Ugh…

I installed a second deck in the back of the vehicle, allowing me to transport nearly twice as many seedlings per trip as in previous years. One of these years, a covered trailer might be part of the process.

Three of those trips required staying overnight, which meant leaving the low tunnel open and exposed to the elements as well as deer. Fortunately, the deer only destroyed about 40 seedlings. Here are just a few among the scores that roam this town, these across the street from the post office in broad daylight.

Plenty of other critters that can do damage, such as squirrels and leafhoppers.

There were thousands of these leafhoppers trapped in the low tunnel when I opened the top the other morning – sure hope they are not beet leafhoppers that carry Curly Top Virus!. You would think by now I would have learned how to take better photos. It’s a combination of equipment and impatience.

But I killed far more of my seedlings than the critters did. I really mollycoddled my seedlings from batch 5 (see below). Excellent germination rates, potted up with TLC, given several days to adjust to indoor conditions (top two shelves on left in the following photo), then moved outdoors with careful attention to the remote thermometer.

It was a relatively cool morning when I moved them to the low tunnel, so I kept the plastic down, checking often to not let it get above 90°F. I was plenty busy indoors, but when it hit 91 in the afternoon, I went out to open up the plastic. A gush of very hot air – hot enough to kill about 30% of the tender new seedlings. Turns out the the sensor had slipped down and was lying on the moist ground between trays. So temperature on the ground was likely 20° cooler than up on the little rise where the seedlings were. I had to replant 22 varieties.

Multi-tasking, vigilance, switching frequently from one task to another – these are challenges for me. My native personality is to focus intensely on a single task until it is done, completely shutting out everything, including eating, while working maniacally. I’ve had plenty of time and practice, but at this point, I’m not sure if I will ever learn to effectively multi-task.

In May, I harvested pods from a couple of varieties of peppers dead plants in the cellar. There are still about 80 pods to harvest from those plants.

Pasilla Pepper Pods Harvested 5-23-2021
Carolina Reaper Pepper Pods Harvested 4-30-2021

For most pepper seedlings, I was 2-3 weeks behind getting them potted up. But they are under shade cloth in the low tunnel now and adjusting well. Problem is, there are about 600 more pepper seedlings than I have space for, and this late in the season, it’s very unlikely that I can sell them.

Wire racks were essentially empty for a few days, so electric bill should drop dramatically! But my final round of tomato seedlings (5 trays) were not started until May 27th and they are now under lights, with first emergence this morning.

Cleaning up from weeks of planting and potting up seedlings – seriously dirty, many hours to clean up – task over half completed, but there are other time demands. Inventory seeds in a state of quasi-chaos from weeks of planting and filling seed orders, with no time to re-organize after bouts of planting. Chaos reduction will take a couple more days.


For the past six months I’ve had grand ambitions of conducting 10,000 or more seed germination tests. I fell far short of that, but managed a few.

Germination test of 48 varieties of lettuce conducted.
Seeds of 30 of those batches were harvested between 2008-2014
Only 4 of these 30 had over 50% germination; most had zero germination.
Seeds of 18 varieties were harvested between 2015-2020; All but 2 of these had over 50% germination.
So I conclude that, at least the way I harvest and store lettuce seeds, seeds more than 6 years old are mostly inviable, while those 5 years old or less should still have good germination rates. I’ve not yet had a chance to plant them into the (non-existent) garden, but I’ve been munching on the leaves on occasion!

I conducted seed germination tests on 73 varieties of brassicas, but have yet to record germination rates. Many have gone to seed in their very squished little pots. Anecdotally, some 10-year-old seeds were still viable, but seeds less than 8 years old germinated better than older seeds.

I tested 29 varieties of onions and relatives but have not yet recorded germination rates. But it’s very clear that onion seeds more than four years old just will not germinate.

I intended to conduct seed germination tests of over 350 cucurbit and 120 legume varieties as well, but ran out of time. And many, many more…

I did manage a modest seed germination test of pepper seeds. But with around 470 varieties in inventory, I ran out of time, space and other resources. Here is a summary of the results with peppers:

I tested pepper seeds of 176 batches, representing 136 varieties. Here are the results in tabular form, by year:

Pepper Seed Germination Tests, April 2021
YearNo. BatchesSeeds PlantedSeeds GerminatedGermination Rate, %

Results comport with what others have found: germination rates for pepper seeds older than 5 years will likely not be very high. So this means I need to grow out at least 100 varieties of peppers every year to maintain a viable seed stock. Happy to do it – but resources, especially time, are limiting.

*An interesting note about the 2011 seeds: On March 26th, I extracted 16 seeds from a dried pod of the variety Cabuchile which was given to me in May, 2011 by a neighbor by the name of Louis, who in turn received the pod from his mother in Mexico. All 16 seeds germinated! There was zero germination of the other variety (Merlot) from 2011.

Seed germination tests are not yet complete for tomatoes. I planted tomato seeds in six large batches this year.

First round, early varieties to share, March 13-15: 60 varieties

Second round, advance requests, March 25-27 and April 11th: 59 varieties

Third round, main crop to share with other growers, March 28th: 104 varieties

Fourth round, new (to DT) to trial, or total failure in previous years; save seeds, April 3-11: 236 varieties

Fifth round, first part of replenish depleted seed stock and oldest seeds, 25-29 April: 81 varieties

Sixth round, second part of replenish depleted seed stock and oldest seeds, 27-28 May: 154 varieties

This comes to a total of 694 varieties planted, of which I hope to be able to save seeds from at least 530 varieties. Interim germination results follow.

Total number of tomato seeds planted: 4,158

Number of tomato seeds for which germination rates can be calculated today (May 31st – obviously those planted after May 26th are just now starting to germinate): 3,490

Number of tomato seeds actually germinated from first five rounds: 2,799

Raw germination rate of tomato seeds from first five rounds: 80.2%

Number of tomato batches with ZERO germination: 42

Of those 42 batches, number from other growers: 36

Of those 36 batches, 27 were from a single grower who generously donated second-hand older seeds (most of them from 2006-2009) of 117 varieties

Germination rate among those 117 batches of older, second-hand seeds: 36.1%

Adjusted germination rate among the other 577 varieties: 83.5%

Germination rates by year are to be determined in a couple of weeks once all planted seeds have been given adequate time to germinate.

BIG MAJOR tasks with zero progress this month:

  • Removal of the huge stump from the massive Siberian Elm tree.
  • Designing and submitting plans for the greenhouse to the government regulators/intruders; thus zero work on the greenhouse.
  • Tractor work, etc. to prepare 4,000 square feet of garden space for planting a garden.
  • Construction of high tunnels over the garden space to keep deer out, humidity up, and temperatures regulated
  • Transplanting of even a single seedling from 3-1/2″ pots into the larger pots and growbags that I used last year.

Yup, it’s getting to the breaking point: I need to hire an assistent, or at least a part-time intern. But there is no way in the world that the budget could handle hiring an assistant, even at $7.25 per hour, which is the current minimum wage in Utah

If I lived in and operated this business from Vietnam, the calculations would be very different. Check out this link:

“Nursery Worker” is a reasonably close job description to what I need. 22,140 VND (Vietnamese Dong) currently converts to $0.96 per hour. That is a salary I could probably afford to pay, even for a full-time, year-round employee. As long as that assistant worked at least half as fast as I do.

Alas, I don’t live in Vietnam. Here is the dilemma, in a nutshell:

If you want to make money as an entrepreneur, chose one doodad that you can manufacture on a machine that requires only one operator (you), zero employees, and a warehouse. Make sure the profit margin on your doodads is very high, that they have a very long shelf life, that you never have to re-tool your manufacturing process to accommodate more than one style, that you have an automated way to package and ship them, that you have computerized inventory, that you take full advantage of mass production, etc. Then advertise like crazy and market the hell out or your doodads on social media: try your best to convince every person on the planet that they must buy one of your doodads. Then watch the money pour into your bank account, and eventually have an article written about you in Forbes magazine, “Fabulously successful, rags-to-riches entrepreneur’s story”.

In almost every conceivable way, what I’m trying to do with heirloom seeds is the exact opposite of this model. Other than my computer and printer, almost everything I’m doing pits me, as an artisan, against the enormous, multi-national seed corporations.

Me: pre-Industrial Revolution, all hand tools, no machines (my tiller has been busted for years), no helpers, no mass marketing, no catalogs mailed out, no seed co-ops (when I’m out of a variety, I’m just out), no purchasing seeds by the gunny sack from distributors who in turn purchase them from Third World countries (I’ve seen the inner workings of BIG seed companies firsthand), etc. You see, years ago I made the fateful decision to live my life based upon principles, not profits or power.

BIG seed companies: Economy of scale, mass production (seeds processed in batches of millions), mass marketing, worldwide network of seed producers and distributors, mostly pay extremely low (slave?) wages to farm workers in Third World countries, etc. Profit-driven.

Here is just a glimpse into one tiny slice of a comparison to using had tools for everything vs. mass production of pumpkin seeds:

Enough of that Jeremiad!! I must get back to work. REALLY hoping to get at least my most critical tomato vines into pots or grow-bags this week. And I’m really hoping to have more than a 92-day growing season this year, because I’m way behind!!

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