Should You Plant Seeds or Seedlings?

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

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 inThe Best Crops to Start as Direct-Sown Seeds.

Plants Best Started as Seedlings

The gardening experts at one of our favorite seed companies, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, recommend the plants listed below as good choices for starting in your garden as seedlings—whether you buy them as purchased transplants or grow the seedlings indoors yourself.

These plants are tender, which means they should not be planted, or set out, in your garden until you are certain that the danger of frost has passed in your area. You also need to help prepare these crops for the transition from indoor safety to outdoor volatility by “hardening off” the seedlings. To do this, simply set them outside in their little pots for a few hours each day over the course of a week before finally planting them. In the hardening-off phase, keep the seedlings out of direct sun and wind.

• Arthichoke • Broccoli • Cabbage • Cauliflower • Celery
• Chive • Cucumber • Eggplant • Leek • Melon
• Okra • Onion • Pepper • Pumpkin • Squash
• Tomatillo • Tomato      

New to Seed Starting?

If you haven’t yet tried to start your own seedlings indoors, here’s a bit of wisdom from Randel Agrella, Seed Production Manager for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds:

• All seeds respond to optimal moisture, temperature and light conditions. Meet those and the plants grow themselves—they require little in the way of additional support.

• That said, not all conditions are equally attainable in all situations, so in that sense, some crops may be easier for some growers, and other crops may be easier for others. Certainly, those crops requiring sustained higher temperatures may be more challenging in the cold conditions common in early spring. On the other hand, some home growers create too warm an environment. An environment that suits tomatoes is likely too warm for cool growers such as onions, cabbage family plants and lettuce.

• Light can be an issue—a sunny windowsill is only adequate if it faces south or maybe southwest. Veggie seedlings need a minimum of five to six hours of sunshine per day, and more is really noticeably better.

• Here’s my list of more challenging seeds to start, which I would recommend beginners avoid until they have some experience: Artichokes, celery and eggplants are the most likely to give trouble.

Consider Your Climate

Along with your level of experience, a consideration that might help you choose whether to use seeds or seedlings is time. For example, for crops that require a longer growing time, such as some types of tomatoes, a shorter growing season means you must start with seedlings, not seeds, outdoors if you hope to harvest fruit before frost sets in. This means that gardeners in the North will need to start more things inside than in the South. Lots of crops will do just fine in moderate climates using either indoor starts or direct sowing.

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