Day 5: Seeds vs. Starter Plants

For me, half the fun of starting a vegetable garden comes at this time of year, when I sit down with a stack of seed catalogs to look at all the new varieties and decide which ones I’ll try. Once I have my choices narrowed down, the next step is to figure out which seeds I’ll start indoors under lights and which ones I’ll sow directly into the garden.

seedling2Other gardeners may opt to bypass this seed stage altogether, and simply buy starter plants from the garden center—where more varieties seem to be offered each year. What’s the difference? Well, most notably, cost. An entire packet of seeds will often cost less than one starter plant or pack.  And not to worry if you don’t plant all of them in one season—many seed varieties will remain viable for several years.  Additionally, there’s still much more variety to be had with seeds than with plants sold at the garden center, and seeds are highly portable and can be easily shared with other gardeners.

On the other hand, there’s more risk involved in planting seeds; some may not germinate, or plants you’ve started indoors might not be hardened off enough to endure outdoor weather extremes. An indoor growing environment requires grow lights or at least bright sunlight from a window, along with planting materials and the space to do it, so there’s time, effort, and expense involved.

Starter plants are ready to be planted, and you’re presumably choosing the healthiest-looking specimens, so there’s less risk of failure. Although they may not be fully hardened off, they’re usually displayed outside or at least in an environment where they’ve developed some resilience to the elements. You’re also purchasing a plant with momentum, and if conditions are favorable, one that’s ready to take off when it’s planted in the ground—a head start that may make for an earlier harvest. All of these factors make starter plants a very attractive option for many gardeners, particularly those who are pressed for time.

What you don’t get from a starter plant is something less tangible: the fun of beginning from scratch and seeing a seedling emerge and grow into a mature plant. That’s what I look forward to most, and it’s why each year I start a substantial number of vegetables from seed.

girl harvesting greens

Greens do well when started indoors before planting out.

But which seeds should you start indoors vs. direct planting in the garden?  In general, I’ve found it works best to start seeds indoors of the early varieties that can tolerate cold like greens, lettuces, broccoli, and cabbage, which can be transplanted into a cold frame or even the garden sooner than anything else. Many herbs are another sure bet for indoor starting. Also, tender plants such as peppers, tomatoes and eggplant that can’t go outside until all danger of frost has passed do well as seeds started under grow lights.  I’ve also started cucumbers, squash, melons, beans, peas, and beets indoors, but I’ve found there’s often not much benefit in it. Unlike peppers and tomatoes, they don’t take as well to transplanting or to sitting for long periods under grow lights, which tends to make them leggy and saps them of momentum. Plus, once the soil in the garden warms up enough, these vegetables are quick to germinate from seed and are rapid growers. Other vegetables that are more practical to sow directly into the garden are carrots, parsnips, turnips, and radishes.

If you decide to start seeds indoors for the first time, you may find yourself being tempted to want to try some of everything.  I’ve found that it’s best to start out slow the first season with a few varieties and see how it goes. Then again, you can start a lot of things, and if some don’t work out you can always buy them as plants from the garden center!

—Tom McKusick

Follow Notes from Northern Gardener throughout January as we offer our series on 31 Days to a Great Northern Vegetable Garden. Tomorrow: Favorite Seed Catalogs for Your Vegetable Garden.

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