Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Seeds or Started Plants, That is the Garden Question

This is the time of the year when we receive garden seed catalogs and see seed packages and seed-starting equipment for sale in garden stores. If you haven’t tried starting plants from seed before, you may be wondering if it’s a worthwhile thing to do, and if so, how to do it in a sensible way. In this post I’ll offer my thoughts on when it makes sense to start plants from seeds, and when you may prefer to obtain plants started by someone else for your garden. 

Started plants are easy to care for and to distinguish from unwanted plants. If you’ve never started seeds before, you may not be confident of your ability to meet their requirements. Even if the seeds germinate and the desired plant appears, you may not be able to distinguish it from surrounding unwanted plants (“weeds”). Even if you do figure out which is the plant you want and keep weeds from swamping it out, tiny seedlings can be delicate, possibly succumbing to over-watering, excessive dryness, lack of nutrition, disease, or predation by any number of critters. Caring for seedlings is generally more time-consuming than caring for larger plants nurtured through the seedling stage by someone else. For all of these reasons, beginners may well find it easier to start with a good-sized plant whose identity is known. Such plants are generally stronger and better able to withstand a bit of neglect than a tiny seedling. The first year I grew any vegetables, I bought a few tomato plants and planted them in large pots. I didn’t know at that point that I wanted to have a vegetable garden; starting with a few plants as an experiment made more sense than buying seeds.

Some plants are more difficult to start from seed, enough so that even experienced gardeners prefer to or must obtain them as started plants. If you live in an area with short summers and don’t have a warm place to start pepper or eggplant seeds, you will do better to use started plants in your vegetable garden. Most other vegetables and annual herbs and flowers are reasonably easy to start from seeds. Some perennial herbs and flowers are easy to start from seeds, but others take a long time (several months to multiple years, with conditions varying during that time). If you don’t enjoy the challenge of starting them from seed, you need them now and not several years from now, or you don’t have the right conditions to germinate the seeds or time to take care of slow-growing seedlings, you’ll need to obtain them as plants. Some shrubs and trees can be started from seeds, but they will establish and produce years sooner if you obtain them as plants. Even after close to 20 years of gardening and a good track record of starting seeds that many people consider difficult, I still buy or obtain from other gardeners some plants for my various gardens.

Some plants aren’t available as seeds. French tarragon, for instance, doesn’t flower and thus must be obtained as a plant. Some named plants cannot be grown from seed because the seeds are not released to the general public, although nurseries can purchase seeds and raise the plants for sale. Hybrid plants like apples and most culinary mints don’t come true from seed (seeds are produced only through cross-pollination and thus are genetically different from the parent plant); if you want a particular variety, you’ll have to obtain it as a plant. In other cases it may be so difficult to start the plant from seed, or the seeds have such a short lifetime, that it isn’t profitable to produce and sell the seeds, but reproducing from an already-started plant is rather easy. Some of our native plants fall into this category.

In many cases, however, it’s either preferable or necessary to start your plants from seeds, for the following reasons.

A packet of seeds is nearly always cheaper to purchase than a started plant, especially since most seed packets contain enough seeds for anywhere from tens to many thousands of plants and most seeds remain viable (capable of germination and growth) for at least a few years when stored properly. While a person tending a very small garden (say 50 square feet or less) may not find the cost of seeds enough cheaper than buying started plants to justify the extra equipment and time required to start seeds, if you have a garden much larger than this you’ll generally find it less costly to start plants from seeds yourself, even accounting for any cost incurred in whatever seed-starting equipment you choose. In a later post I’ll discuss Living Low methods of raising lots of seeds cheaply and using no or very little fossil-fuel energy.

In the case of vegetables and some herbs and flowers you’ll find a much wider choice of varieties available as seeds than as started plants. The plants commonly available at garden centers are popular varieties that tend to grow acceptably over most of the U.S. (or whatever country you live in). They may not be the best-tasting variety, however, or the variety you remember your parents or grandparents using in certain special foods, or varieties that are especially well suited for your climate or growing conditions. Many different seed companies produce an almost unimaginably large number of varieties of different vegetables. If you want to grow something spectacular-looking or with an unusual or exquisite flavor, an heirloom variety (some popular heirloom varieties like ‘Brandywine’ tomato can be found in garden centers as plants but most are still only available as seeds), a variety especially suited to a particular cuisine, or a variety that does well in your unusual growing conditions, best to look in the offerings of seed catalogs or the seed racks at a good local garden center. If you want to save your own seed to have even more control over your food supply, you’ll of course need to learn to grow the resulting seeds.

Some vegetables are usually or always grown from seed directly sown in the garden, generally because they are taprooted or have delicate roots so they don’t transplant well or at all, or because they can only be transplanted when very young and thus are not suited to mass production, shipment, and holding for sale. Examples are radishes, carrots, turnips, peas, beans, and corn. Some herbs like cilantro also fall into this category. If you want to grow these, you’ll have to buy seeds and learn how to meet their needs.

The last reason to grow plants from seeds is because you want to! Many gardeners enjoy the whole process of growing plants from seeds all the way to the mature plant. Starting seeds and watching the seedlings appear and grow can make the waning days of winter that much more tolerable. Participating in the entire life process of a plant really brings home the beauty and fragility of all life.

To summarize, it makes sense for a gardener to use plants started by someone else under the following conditions:
    you have a small garden so the cost difference between seeds and plants is small;
    you can’t supply the seeds you’d like to grow with the conditions they need;
    you have more money than you have time to start and care for seedlings;
    the varieties you want to grow are only available as started plants.

Starting seeds yourself is especially important for those of you who want to grow a large garden, don’t have much money to spend on your garden so you need to make it go as far as possible, want to grow plants only available as seeds, want to be as self-sufficient as possible in your gardening practice, or enjoy the process of growing plants from seeds.

You can use a combination of plants you grow from seeds and plants you obtain from someone else in your garden. This often makes sense for gardeners who can supply the right conditions for some seeds but not for others. Peppers and eggplants require a lot of heat to germinate their seeds; few of us who are living low have that kind of heat available in February or March unless we have a wood stove or buy and use a heat mat or something else to create a small space that is warm enough. Even if you start the rest of your vegetables from seeds, you may prefer to use plants someone else started for your pepper and eggplant crops.

I’ve been careful to state that you only have to obtain the plants from someone else, not that you need to purchase them from a garden center. The Living Low in the Lou Way includes creativity in finding sources of the things you need or want outside of the monetary economy. If you have a gardener friend who grows plants from seeds, it’s quite likely that he or she will have a few extra seedlings available after planting his/her garden. Most gardeners would rather see those plants go to a friend than get composted. Check with gardener friends at planting time. Perhaps a gardener friend is willing to raise a few extra plants for you, for free or in return for something else; this is the time of year to ask since those of us who raise seeds in the St. Louis area are either starting them now or will be over the next few weeks. Trash-picking or dumpster-diving could be a source of free plants, especially for those of you who live in the city of St. Louis or someplace else where dumpsters are readily accessible. Gardener friends might divide a perennial plant or reproduce it from cuttings or layering if you ask them.

In the next post, I’ll consider when it makes sense to start seeds early inside a controlled environment versus starting them in the spot where they are to grow. I hope I get to that next week since it’s time to start seeds early for those of you in the St. Louis metro area and in other places with similar climates.


  1. I'm extremely lucky to have access to the UMSL greenhouses to start seeds for my garden and the community garden I participate in. It makes peppers and eggplants, and most everything else for that matter, a cinch. I hope you will post about your seed starting methods soon. I reuse soil used in experiments at the university in plastic flat they normally throw away, but I won't be here forever, so I hope to learn something new! I would also add that another reason not to buy from garden centers is disease. In 2009 there was a major spread of early blight in tomatoes that was traced to a huge supplier of garden center tomato plants. The disease spread all over the east coast that year thanks to industrial distribution.

    1. I'm adding it to my list of topics for upcoming posts. I'd hoped to do this back in March, but the gardening season got going before I got to that topic. Once I get the last few vegetable beds planted, I plan to do more writing; if all goes as planned, planting will be completed by mid-June or thereabouts.