Seeds and Plants - Which Is Better?
Choosing whether to plant seeds or plants in your garden is a pretty big decision and one that should be based on a few key factors. I fill my kitchen garden with a mix of starter plants I've purchased or grown from seed indoors and seeds I sow directly outdoors. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both.
Here are a few things to consider when determining the best way to get a plant in your garden:
- time to maturity
- plant size
Let's look at each of these factors in more detail.
Factor #1: Time to Maturity
Plant Seeds for Plants That Grow Fast
Different types of plants require different amounts of time to reach maturity. For example, if you're growing plants such as tomatoes and peppers, most gardeners would opt to plant seedlings obtained from their local nursery versus direct sowing seeds into the garden. Tomato plants can take months to fruit after planting. So if you're in a climate with a short growing season, it may not be practical to sow seeds for your tomato plants outdoors. Of course, you can always start your tomato plants from seed indoors under grow lights and then transplant them into your garden when the weather is right.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are plants like lettuces and spinach, which can be ready to harvest in as little as 30 days. It makes sense to grow these fast-growing plants from seed.
Overall, knowing the amount of time it's going to take for your plants to be ready to harvest is key. The seed packets will usually tell you how long a particular plant will take to reach maturity, and some will tell you that the plants should be started indoors weeks before your last frost date. These are going to be the plants you want to place in your garden as plants and not seeds.
Here's a general rule of thumb if you're considering buying plants at the store: Check the time that plant will need to grow so that it produces the part you want to harvest. If it's under 65 days, buy a seed packet instead. If it's over 65 days, buy the plant.
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Factor #2: Plant Size
Let Size Guide You When It Comes to Seeds vs Plants
The size of the plants in your garden will have an impact on whether they should be planted from seed or as plants. The larger the plant, the longer it takes the plant to reach maturity—and the longer the plant will need to be in the garden before harvesting. Larger plants do better being placed in the garden as seedlings versus seeds because of the length of time they need to grow.
On the other hand, plants that are smaller in size (like lettuce plants) don't take as long to reach maturity and may do much better in your garden being direct sown from seed. I like to sow smaller plants like radishes and lettuce greens directly in the garden around larger plants that I've transplanted to the garden space, to fill in empty spaces.
Factor #3: Transplantability
Plant Seeds for Plants with Delicate Roots
There are some plants that just don't like to be moved once they've been seeded. For example, plants in the legume family (like peas and pole beans) are sensitive to being moved. Even though they take 60 to 75 days to mature and grow pretty large, these plants do much better being direct seeded into the garden. There are exceptions to every rule, right?
Some other large plants that don't like to be moved include squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Even though these plants take a long time to grow and really need optimal weather, they do much better being grown from seed in the garden than from transplants.
I've already mentioned that it's best to grow those small leafy greens like arugula and lettuce plants from seed directly where they'll spend their short lifespan, but I want to mention that they also just don't transplant well. Avoid starting these plants by seed indoors or buying starts at the store, no matter how healthy they look on the shelf.
Finally, those plants that we grow for their roots—think carrots, radishes, beets—also have sensitive roots that don't like being moved.
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Plants to Prioritize Buying from the Store
If you're not interested in starting your own seeds indoors, then here are some plants that might be worth spending your money on so that you can get a head start on your growing season.
Both onions and garlic chives are perennials that will come back year after year, even in really cold climates, and you can divide them, which means you get more bang for your buck. Chives can be a little challenging to start from seed, but they're a must-have companion plant for every garden thanks to their ability to keep pests away. Chives are well worth the investment of a couple bucks.
Kale, collards, mustards, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are large and long plants, meaning they take a long time (sometimes as long as 120 days!) to grow to their mature size. If you want to get a jumpstart on your growing season, it's worth it to grab these guys from the nursery. They've basically done all the hard work of getting them ready to go for you so that you can harvest your first leaves sooner.
That being said, I've experimented with growing Brassicas from the nursery right next to directly sewn seeds for the same, and I've often found that those plants grown in the garden from seed end up being healthier and lasting longer overall in the garden than the ones I bought. Take cabbage, for example. You might struggle to grow a really nice, tight head of cabbage after transplanting it, but hey, that doesn't mean you won't be able to enjoy the outer leaves as it's growing.
Tomatoes, Peppers, and Eggplants
Most people don't experience a long-enough warm growing season to give these plants the full time in the garden they need to grow from seed to fruit harvest. Ideally, you'll get well-grown seedlings in the ground the moment you pass your final threat of frost in the spring. It's worth it to buy healthy starts from the store so that you can maximize the time these guys spend under the warm sun ripening fruit for you.
Herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, and tarragon can take a fairly long time to grow from seed. If you see an herb plant at the store that looks healthy, it might be worth it to bring that little guy home so that you can snip your first leaves that very day. Besides, you'll probably pay about the same price for the entire plant as you would for a little plastic package of some leaves.
Btw: Annual herbs like cilantro, parsley, basil, and dill will grow from seed much faster and might be worth starting from seed instead.
This beautiful leafy green is a biennial, which means it can last up to two years in your garden. You can buy young Swiss chard plants and feel good about your purchase since you'll likely get to harvest leaves for a long time.
Are you seeing a theme here? It's all about time. Both plants that need a long time to produce for you and plants that you'll be able to enjoy for a long time in your garden are the ones that might just be worth the purchase.
The advantage of buying seeds is that just one inexpensive packet can fill your garden with loads and loads of plants. Plus, you know everything that went into growing that plant from seed to harvest, so you can certify that it was organically grown in nutrient-rich soil.
When buying seeds, be sure you're buying from a source that's prioritizing organic, non-GMO seeds. Some of my favorite seed sources are Baker Creek, Botanical Interests, Southern Exposure, High Mowing, and Johnny's Selected Seeds.
Buying Plants from the Store
Compared to buying seeds, plant starts from the store are definitely more expensive. Nevertheless, there comes a time when we all need to buy plants (Okay, maybe we don't need to, strictly speaking, but the pull of those shelves covered in green is strong), so here's how to be more successful at the plant store.
First of all, buy from a local nursery or CSA. Avoid purchasing plants from big box stores. Their plants will have traveled quite a distance before reaching the store and have most likely been treated with fungicide or synthetic fertilizers so they look great when you see them at the store. If you don't continue to feed them the same fertilizers or fungicides when you get them home, chances are, they'll either sit there and not grow or just give up being green entirely.
I like to compare plants to toddlers who are very used to a certain routine at home—when they'll be fed dinner and what that dinner will look like, when they'll be put to bed, etc. When their expectations aren't met after we've gotten them used to doing things a particular way, they throw a fit.
The same is true for your plants. They've been grown in their first few weeks or even months a certain way, and they expect to be treated the exact same once you bring them home. If you don't continue the treatment they're accustomed to (if you don't know that they like a biweekly dose of Miracle-Gro, for example), your plant will be like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum.
Only, plants can't be soothed with a sucker. Their temper tantrum can actually mean life or death, and if your plant dies, you're going to think it was all your fault and that you don't have a green thumb after all.
Tips for Buying Healthy Plants
Here are some other tips to help you ensure you purchase a strong, healthy plant that will produce well in your garden and make up for your investment.
- Look for plants that aren't blooming yet. You want to purchase smaller plants so that you can get them in the ground, where they'll focus on growing roots, before they put all their energy toward flowering and fruiting. If the plant already has flowers, pinch them off when you're transplanting to your garden.
- Gently pull the plant from its container to make sure the roots aren't spiraling around the inside, a sign that the plant is root-bound from sitting on the shelf a little too long and will have a hard time establishing itself in your garden. Roots should be white and healthy looking.
- Inspect the leaves for signs of pests and disease. Check the underside of leaves and the stem carefully.
- Don't purchase leggy plants (plants that have grown too tall and narrow). These plants either have not been given sufficient light or have been overcrowded, meaning they have likely already experienced too much stress to thrive in your garden.
- If you can't find plants that are certified organic, look for labels that say "naturally grown". Many small local growers can't afford the expensive process of being approved as an organic grower, but they're still avoiding using synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
Typically, the more local the nursery you buy your plants from, the better. You'll be able to ask questions about how plants are grown, you'll be more likely to find organically grown plants, and you'll support a local business. Plus, local nurseries tend to carry plants that have been grown near you, which means they're much more likely to enjoy growing in your climate.
Keeping these things in mind will increase your chances of success when buying plants and introducing them to your garden.
Steps to Plant Starts from the Store
Follow these steps to welcome your new plants from the store properly:
Step 1: Water
Water your garden space and gently mist the roots of the plants you're about to transplant. You don't want to flood the soil, just prep the space. I've moved a lot, and I know how stressful it can be. Plants feel moving stress too. Your plants will be like, "Wait, what just happened? Where am I?" Adding some water is kind of like rolling out a welcome mat. It'll make it simpler for this plant to adjust to its new home.
Step 2: Dig
Dig a hole twice as wide as the plant and the same depth as the roots. Most plants don't like to be buried below their neck (where the stem meets the roots); tomatoes are the exception, and these guys should be buried all the way up to their first set of leaves.
Place the plant right in the middle of the hole you've dug and fill in around it with soil. By digging wider than the plant itself, you loosen the soil and help the roots find space to grow side to side.
Step 3: Prune
Pruning is a way of telling a plant where to send its energy. If you cut the top off a chives plant or remove some of the outer leaves of a kale plant, you're telling the plant to put its energy toward developing its roots before it tries to grow any new leaves. It's also a good idea to prune any wilting or discolored leaves, keeping in mind never to prune more than a third of a plant at one time.
Removing these extra leaves takes some pressure off the plant. If your friend moved to a new town, you wouldn't expect them to do anything the moment they arrived except settle in, right?
Step 4: Water Again
Give the plant a nice little watering in. This is like a housewarming party for the plant.
Seeds or Plants? You Decide
So that's the criteria I use when deciding whether to plant seeds or plants in my garden. Whenever possible, go with seeds before going plant shopping. When you do buy plants, I hope you never again bring a plant home only to watch it die.
You can find out a lot more about choosing plants for your garden and deciding how you're going to design your kitchen garden with Gardenary 365.
Thanks for helping us bring back the kitchen garden, one seed packet and plant start at a time!
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