Many species delay development unless particular environments or rare disturbance events occur. How can such a strategy be favoured over continued development? Typically, it is assumed that continued development (e.g. germination) is not advantageous in environments that have low juvenile/seedling survival (mechanism 1), either due to abiotic or competitive effects. However, it has not previously been shown how low early survival must be in order to favour environment-specific developmental delays for long-lived species. Using seed dormancy as an example of developmental delays, we identify a threshold level of seedling survival in ‘bad’ environments below which selection can favour germination that is limited to ‘good’ environments. This can be used to evaluate whether observed differences in seedling survival are sufficient to favour conditional germination. We also present mathematical models that demonstrate two other, often overlooked, mechanisms that can favour conditional germination in the absence of differences in seedling survival. Specifically, physiological trade-offs can make it difficult to have germination rates that are equally high in all environments (mechanism 2). We show that such trade-offs can either favour conditional germination or intermediate (mixed) strategies, depending on the trade-off shape. Finally, germination in every year increases the likelihood that some individuals are killed in population-scale disturbances before reproducing; it can thus be favourable to only germinate immediately after a disturbance (mechanism 3). We demonstrate how demographic data can be used to evaluate these selection pressures. By presenting these three mechanisms and the conditions that favour conditional germination in each case, we provide three hypotheses that can be tested as explanations for the evolution of environment-dependent developmental delays.