Last week, I got an e-mail from Jeff, who works in our customer contact center: “I had a seed-starting failure this season. I used some older seeds (2008-ish) and placed the seed tray by a cool window to germinate. Cheap and stupid right? I am getting zero sprouts on day six. What would you recommend?”

I hear this question a lot at this time of year. What to do? Test! If you get decent results in a germination test, it’s worth planting. If not, compost the old seeds.

The first step is to put 10 seeds in a damp paper towel and nestle it in a plastic bag for a few days — preferably in a spot that’s about 70 degrees F. — or warmer.

Germination test for old seeds

Here’s an example: These cosmos seeds were packed for 2011, so I want to test them. I fold up the moist paper towel and slip it into the plastic bag. The whole thing goes on top of my refrigerator to encourage germination. The seed packet says to expect germination in 7 to 10 days. Within a week, I get 50 percent germination. By two weeks, 90 percent have germinated. Good seeds!

Most seed packets will tell you “days to germination.” After the expected number of days have passed, check to see how many sprout. If you get more than 50 percent germination, you might want to give it try, planting two or three seeds to a cell. If nothing sprouts, all you’ve lost is a paper towel and 5 minutes.

Some types of seed are good for four to five years, but others are more perishable.