As a new gardener starting out, should you start from scratch and use seed packets? Or does it make more sense to buy transplant from a nursery? If you plan on transplants, are you going to start seeds yourself or rely on nurseries with greenhouses? I will cover some of the main concerns and reasons to choose starting from seed or transplanting seedlings.
When I start to plan my garden I also plan what plants need to go in the ground when. This requires reading either the back of the seed packet or googling common planting times. The planting timeline will generally depend on your location, time of last spring frost and time of first fall frost. For example for tomatoes, the seed packet may say; "Start your seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the average last spring frost date." This will require you understand the average last spring frost date for your region of the world.
For each plant you desire you will have a few options:
- Transplant seedling into the garden from seeds you starting inside.
- Transplant seedling into the garden from a nursery or garden center.
- Start seeds directly (direct sow) placed in your garden.
Transplant Seedling (Home Started)
- Cheaper: This option is often cheaper than buying seedlings from a nursery. A single plant may cost you $1-3 per plant from a nursery or garden center. While it may cost you $1-3 per seed packet with 100 seeds.
- Control: You can control the plant's life from start to finish. You will know the exact seeds you are growing. You can choose local seed companies, organic, GMO-free, Hybrids or heirlooms depending on your needs and climate. When you start seedling yourself, you know the seed are what they say they are!
- Reuse: You can reuse containers year after year to reduce costs. You can use dirt from outside to also save money over buying nursery plants.
- Headstart: You give plants a head start against pests. Consider the hungry catepillar entering your garden. If you start from seed, and the catepillar takes a bite our of your tiny just-sprouted plant it may not recover. However the catepillar's bite on your 6" plant with many leaves may not be a death sentence for the plant. The plant will be better able to withstand pests if it is larger by the time it goes into the garden.
- Extend Season: You give plants a head start on producing fruit. If you live in a region with a short summer, starting you seedling inside can give them a head start. This may allow you to grow plants that require a longer summer than otherwise is provided by mother nature. Rather than attempting to protect unripened fruit from frost, give yourself a bit more time on the spring side.
- Space: You will need space to house seedling for 6-8 weeks. You will need to provide the water, dirt and containers to house your seedling as they germinate and grow.
- Lighting: You will need to provide artificial lighting or have your own greenhouse in which to start the seedling. I use the T5 Light Ballast systems which you can find here. They are cheaper than LED lights, but can be costly to run full time all year-round. This would be an invest in your garden.
- Transplanting: Not all plants transplant well. Some plants do not like their roots disrupted and will fail to produce a good crop if they are transplanted.
Transplant Seedling (Nursery Started)
- Pro-Start: Seedling where given a professional start at life. The master gardener at the nursery likely took care to give these plants the best head-start. They should be a healthy start to your garden.
- Available: Seedling will be available exactly when it's time to plant. Likely the nursery isn't going to sell you tomato seedling in February. They are going to sell tomato seedling in May and June, when they are ready to go in the ground. This takes some of the guess work out of planing seedlings.
- Replacements: They are readily available to replace plants that may have died in your own garden. I had this happen this season. Not all my transplants that I started myself survived the planting in the ground. I went to my local nursery and replaced the dead tomato plants will lively seedlings. I hope to maintain my harvest despite my original dead transplants.
- Garden-Ready: They are ready right now. You can buy a plant this morning and have a full garden by the afternoon. These transplant take the guess work out of germination rates.
- Species Selection: Chances are the garden center will stock plants that grow will in their climate. I live in New England and I have never seen a Papaya or banana tree in my local nursery. Since the nursery knows what grows there, it may save the heartache of choosing a plant that just won't survive in your climate.
- Weak roots: The seedling may appear leafy and fresh but are weak-rooted. I always suggest you support local nurseries rather than big box-stores like Home Depot or Lowes. A local nursery or garden center will try to ensure you plant is actually healthy, not just looks healthy. There are tricks the store owner could play to get their plants to look green and leafy while they are little roots or are not properly hardened off to live outside.
- Mislabeled plants: While there is the possibility that a seed packet gets mislabeled, there is an given greater chance that a plant would be mislabeled at the nursery. Those little plastic sticks in each pot would get mixed up or fall out and stuck in a wrong plant. The plant could be labeled as organic but were started with non-organic seeds.
- Hardening-off: Take care to ensure the plant is hardened off enough to survive living outside. It may be quite a shock to a young plant to go form a cozy greenhouse directly into a chilly garden. Garden centers may not harden them off enough; you don't know how long that plant has sat outside. It may have been taken directly from greenhouse to shopping cart in a matter of hours.
- Limited variety. You may not have many options for different varieties of plants. Seed catalogues may have hundreds of tomato types but the nursery may only stock 8-10 of the popular varieties. Starting from seed catalogues could produce you will unique options and help to save breeds that are dying out from our commercial food production.
- Expensive: A seed packet with 10-30 seeds generally costs about $3. However one tomato plant ready to go in the ground could also cost you about $3.
- Transplant Shock: No risk of transplant shock. You will not need to disturb the root systems or harden off the plants. As the plants grow right where they will forever live they will be accustomed to the environment from the start.
- Lighting: No need for grow lights, containers, shelf-space, potting soil or heat mats. No need to water them daily or harden them off to withstand cold nightly temperatures.
- Small plants: Great for plants that start very small. Onions seedling look like blades of grass and may it different to transplant them this way. (Onions are often sold as, onion sets and therefore at nursery raised transplants).
- Early Harvest: Often plants that are direct sown can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked (ie not frozen). This means these plants get an early start and have the potential for an early harvest. Peas by fourth of July!
- Seed loss. You will have to over plant the seed in order to account for some loss. The seeds could fail to sprout, they could rot before they sprout. The seed could be eaten or washed away before they even have a chance at life. There are a number of reasons your crops could fail from the start, so you will have to buy extra seeds to account of the expected loss.
- Thinning required. If you over seed and all your seed sprouts you will then need to thin your beds. While you may feel your are killing you plants by thinning them, overcrowding will lead to stunted plants. You are allowing the strongest plants the best chance at life by giving them the space they require. However it takes time and energy to thin plants.
- Growing season constrains. If you will in a climate with a short growing season, waiting until it's time to direct sow may mean your plants risk a frost before their fruit is ripe. You won't have the benefit of starting them inside early to give them more time to grow before the first fall frost.
Plants that Transplant Well:
- Winter Squash
- Summer Squash
Plants that Don't Transplant Well*:
- Carrots and other root crops
* This does not mean you can't transplant these plants. Either they are too numerous to consider transplanting or may not survive well. I have heard and seen methods to transplant all of these plants but do not transplant them myself.
While growing plants is a science it is a changing science. I don't just mean as global warming changes out plant. Each year will be a little different, there might be a late frost or early hot days. You might have emergencies that delay planting or unexpected company that make the work go fast. You will have to find what methods work best for your family, your household, your garden and your growing climate. I hope share some tradeoff between starting seeds from transplants and starting seeds directly in the ground. What works for your family?