There was a time when growing a garden meant raising all your plants from seed. Now with nurseries and commercial growers, gardeners can fill their beds with a wide range of seedlings and small plants without waiting a whole season for them to mature. How you decide to start your garden depends on how much time and money you have, and what types of plants you want to grow.
There is immense satisfaction in starting plants from seeds, whether you buy them at a nursery or save them from your own plants. Every gardener should try growing a plant from seed at least once!
We tend to think of seeds as the little flakes and specks spilling out of a packet, but the term "seed" also refers to crops that are propagated vegetatively — that is, they're started by replanting a piece of the mature plant. Examples of such are garlic (which grow from individual cloves called seed garlic) and potatoes (which grow from sprouted eyes called seed potatoes).
Seeds can also take the form of seed tape, seed disks, seed mats, seed bombs, plantable seed cards, or even all-in-one seed pods — alternative products that help simplify the task of seeding a garden, especially if you're not good with handling teeny tiny seeds.
Plant Choices for Seeds
Sunflowers, wildflowers, and other plants that are best broadcast over a large bed; fast-growing vegetables such as beans, peas, and summer squash; root crops such as carrots, beets, and turnips; plants with long tap roots and plants that don't transplant well, such as parsley and cilantro; alpine strawberries.
Pros of Seeds
Seeds are cheap! You can try as many plants as you want without the guilt of failure. They offer an excellent value for the return in harvest; a $3 packet of seeds can easily yield 300 pounds of tomatoes. The choice in cultivars is astounding, especially from online seed suppliers that specialize in rare or heirloom seeds. With proper storage, some seeds can last several years.
Cons of Seeds
Seed starting requires a significant investment in time, space, and materials, especially in colder climates where grow lights and heating pads may be needed. In regions with short growing seasons, seeds must be started indoors in winter to assure adequate time from transplant to harvest. Not every plant can be started from seed, such as hybrids that are specially bred for unusual coloring or disease resistance.
How to Choose Viable Seeds
Seed quality can greatly affect your chances of seed starting success, so it's important to purchase seeds from a reputable source. Stay away from dollar stores and bargain counters, whose seeds may be old or improperly stored. Heat and humidity are their enemies!
If you acquire seeds from other gardeners, you stand the best chance for success if they were saved from mature and productive plants raised in a similar climate. Bear in mind that seeds saved from hybrid plants or supermarket produce may not grow true to the parent (or at all), so stick with trusted seed suppliers.
Starts are exactly that: plants that have already been started for you, giving you a jump start of several weeks on the growing season.
Starts come as seedling plugs or starter plants. You might already be familiar with plugs if you've wandered down a gardening aisle: those little plants grown in six-cell plastic trays, or sometimes a whole flat of cells for groundcover plants. Plugs are typically four to six weeks old, and may be grown in clusters and clumps, or thinned out to just one seedling per cell.
Starter plants are young plants raised in individual containers, though they're a month or more ahead of seedlings. They have more established root systems and may already be flowering or fruiting.
Plant Choices for Starts
Seedling Plugs: Bedding plants such as coleus, pansies, and marigolds; groundcovers such as creeping thyme, mondo grass, and hens-and-chicks; leafy vegetables that are grown en masse, such as spinach, lettuce, and arugula; scallions, leeks, and chives.
Starter Plants: Landscaping plants such as hostas, jasmine, and bougainvillea; fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant; specialty plants that are difficult or time-consuming to start from seed, such as lavender, bay, and rhubarb; herbs, berries, and fruit trees.
Pros of Starts
Seedling plugs save time and space if you lack one or the other for seed starting. They're a fast and economical way to get a lot of plants into your garden, especially if you have a late start to the season.
Starter plants are ideal for instant impact in the garden and cut down on the time needed to raise seedlings. They're also a good choice if you only need one or two plants of a particular cultivar, or want to try something new without committing to a tray of plants.
Cons of Starts
Seedling plugs and starter plants must be carefully handled and acclimatized to avoid transplant shock. You risk introducing possible pests and diseases from the nursery into your garden. You're also limited to the selection you find in the store, and even online catalogs offer a small range of cultivars. If you're starting a garden from scratch, the cost of starter plants can add up quickly.
How to Choose the Healthiest Starts
Choose plants with strong stems, unblemished leaves, and good color all over. Watch out for signs of pests or diseases, especially on the undersides of leaves. Try to avoid plants that are "leggy" — that is, they're overly tall and skinny for the size of container they're sitting in. If you can, gently knock the plant out of its pot and ensure its roots aren't cramped. A plant that seems much too large for its pot is also a sign that it may be rootbound.
When buying flowering or fruiting plants, the specimen with the biggest blooms or the most fruits isn't necessarily the best choice, as it may be more susceptible to transplant shock. Instead, choose smaller plants with plenty of tight buds.
Expert Tip: Consider the length of your growing season. If you live in a climate with a short growing season, you'll need to start seeds at least a month before your last frost date. After that, it's best to buy starts to ensure a healthy harvest before the first frost comes around again.