Should You Plant Seeds or Seedlings?

Use our guide to help you determine which plants to start from seed and which to buy as established plants.

| January/February 2016

  • For the novice gardener, some plants are better started as seedlings, though others are best started directly from seed.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Some plants, like amaranth, beans and corn are best grown from direct-sown seeds.
    Photo by iStock
  • If you're new to starting plants from seed, it's important to pay attention to the specific environmental needs of each plant.
    Photo by iStock

Several years ago, I interviewed many esteemed gardening experts for advice on how beginners should approach their first attempts to grow food. The major takeaway was that novice gardeners should be especially wary of biting off more than they could chew—or more precisely, what they could reasonably manage to get planted, weeded, watered and harvested. It’s so easy to imagine a bountiful garden in winter, and then find out that you can’t keep up with the demands of a truly productive garden all summer long. That adds up to more hassle, work and stress, and less bountiful crops. Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, summed it up perfectly with this simple tip: “Start small and scale up as you encounter success. Start by planting things you like to eat.”

So, for beginner gardeners trying out a new hobby, it can certainly be helpful to spend a few bucks on established seedlings, also known as transplants, from garden centers and farmers markets instead of trying to grow all of your plants from seed. But not all plants actually work best as transplants; some seeds should be planted directly where they will grow. And when it comes to transplants, we recommend that more experienced gardeners make the leap to start growing some of your own seedlings.

Reasons to Choose Seeds

There are many, many, many good reasons to start food plants from seed rather than buying transplants. First, consider the obvious cost savings—seedlings often cost $4 or more each, whereas premium seeds cost around $2 a pack and can last two years or more. Another important reason is that seeds can offer more control over your food supply—when you grow your own seedlings, you know what kind of soil they grew in, what kind of fertilizer they’ve received, and if any chemicals were used. It’s not easy to find completely organic plants everywhere.

Finally, growing from seeds offers infinitely more variety in plant options. You might want to focus on specific vegetable and fruit varieties that offer the best nutrition or the best defenses against a garden nuisance that is prevalent in your area. Seed companies can offer so much more variety than any garden store.

Of course, growing your own seedlings does require a bit more work, but it isn’t terribly hard and pays off in so many ways. Start with a few then round out your garden with some of the many agreeable plants that grow just fine when their seeds are planted directly in outdoor soil. When you’re sure you are ready to graduate from buying seedlings to starting your own plants from seed indoors, check out our comprehensive guide to seed starting.

Learn when and what to plant as direct-sown crops in The Best Crops to Start as Direct-Sown Seeds.

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