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Spring Dilemma: Seeds or Starter Plants

By James Parker, March 2, 2010  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by James Parker

Around the first of March I start thinking about my spring vegetable garden. This is the time when I feel the closest connection to the growers throughout the U.S. as we emerge from another winter (in some places) and contemplate the start of a new growing season. There are lots of things to think about: Are we past our final frost? (I think so but my neighbors don't agree.) Should I plant further apart in anticipation of a wetter spring? In my own modest way many of the decisions I make mirror those of far larger growers. Among the most important of these decisions is: Should I grow from seed or should I grow from starter plants?


Lettuce just emerging from seed - Carmel Valley California

For large-scale growers the choice between seed and starter plants begins with economics. The expense associated with bringing a seed to a seedling plant stage can be staggering. Germination time, plant type, climate, geography and expected yield per acre are all factors that influence the decision. Expected return is also an important factor. Fruits and vegetables with a low per pound value (like melons and pumpkins) are more likely to come from direct seed planting.


Sweet peas from last year's seed crop

My choices are driven less by logic and more by habit. I tend to start from seed only those items for which I harvest seeds from the prior season. These are pumpkins and hard squashes, sunflowers and sweet peas. It is important to note that if you plant from harvested seeds you will often get a variation that differs from the variety of the parent plant. This is caused by cross-pollination and the effects will vary depending on how many varieties you (or your neighbors) grow. I happen to love this effect - the variations that come out of my "mystery garden" of mixed pumpkin seeds, for example, are often unexpected. It's also interesting to see how similar (but different) successive generations of the same plant are.


Strawberry starts - 6-pack and 4" Alpine, Variegated and Seascape varieties

Everywhere the farmers' markets, grocery stores and nurseries are eagerly anticipating people like me. First a trickle but soon a flood of colorful seed packets and young, delicate starter plants in 6-pack, 2" and 4" pots will compete for the roughly 168 cubic feet of garden space I've carved out of my backyard. I am a seed and plant salesperson's dream. I live in an area where you can grow almost anything; I know just enough about plants and gardening to be dangerous; and I cannot walk by a display without buying something.

That said, here are some basic tips I've learned about seed versus starters plant gardening:

  • Avoid seeds with long germination times. As a rule, the longer it takes a seed to germinate, the more likely it is to be affected by adverse weather conditions. Herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage are good examples of long germination seeds and you may get better results going with plant starts. In contrast, lettuce seeds germinate quickly and are very successfully grown from seed. All seed packets will tell you how long the seed takes to germinate.
  • Length of season - this will vary depending on where you live (and on how good you are at planting on time). If you live in the southern states, for example, where the spring growing season is short you might consider a starter plant over seed to give your garden a head start. Also, if you are like me and tend to be late getting your garden planted, starters will cut down on the time it takes a plant to mature.
  • Garden size - my garden in my old yard was 1/5 the size of the one I have today. Seed planting has a higher rate of plant failure than a garden planted from starters. If your garden area is small and you want to be exacting about what grows and where, starter plants are a better option.

Aidan with my best ever sunflower- 2004 crop (I still have the seeds from progressive generations)

You can also get the best of both worlds by making your own starters from seed - I save all my containers from prior purchases to use for starting plants I know I want a lot of (like sunflowers). Results will vary, of course, from place to place so I encourage experimentation - and do please share what you have found. On the subject of gardening in particular, I'm always open to new ideas.

Category: Trends & New Stuff




Fair Trade says ...
Would that I had a bigger garden... and greener fingers!
03/02/2010 5:21:36 AM CST
Vegan Diaries says ...
Thanks for this article. I'm getting ready to plant my first vegetable and herb garden so this was really helpful to me. I had thought I would start from seed but now thinking starter plants will be better for the first time and I'll save the containers like you suggested. Was at Whole Foods yesterday and say they sell compost! I didn't know that but very excited about it.
03/02/2010 2:27:28 PM CST
Bonnie says ...
why are sunflowers seeds when purchased are good for a year? Thank you
03/02/2010 6:59:53 PM CST
dale says ...
Now that's a sunflower! I have a big deep window well covered with glass and every year I think I'm going to start seeds .... at least some spinach for goodness sake. 12 years, still haven't done it.
03/02/2010 9:52:42 PM CST
Amy says ...
I sometimes purchase berries or cherry tomatoes in plastic containers. FYI...they make great seed starters because of the holes in the bottom. Plus...you can often see the roots growing!
03/03/2010 10:54:53 AM CST
Nina O says ...
I didn't notice any suggestions regarding soil, timing and climate for in the yard veggie growers. Any advice for Northeasterners like me who deal with heat, humidity, cold, ever changing climate and sandy, rocky, poor soil conditions?
03/03/2010 11:58:03 AM CST
parkerj says ...
No time like the present Dale- I recommend a "bloomsdale" or curly spinach- excellent flavor and very easy to grow. Hi Amy- that's actually what I meant to say instead of pot. Those containers are great for starting seeds. Your comment about seeing the roots also reminded me that this is something you should look at before you buy starter plants at your store or nursery- excessive roots are often an indication the start is root bound and the plant is stressed. You'll want to make sure you soak it well before you plant it
03/03/2010 12:33:08 PM CST
screwdestiny says ...
That sunflower is GIGANTIC!
03/03/2010 4:05:08 PM CST
Jane Hamner says ...
Sweet peas are my passion and my nemesis! I have tried to grow them every year since we moved to the country and have never really had good results. My dad used to start the seeds just before winter sets in...perhaps December...and I did that but never got really good results until one year, maybe 2005, and the deer discovered the blossoms. End of story. I am willing to plant them again, inside the 8 ft fence if I have some chance of succeeding. Do you retail them anywhere in the Durham vicinity and if so, where, please. Thanks for the planting story. I think we are all crazy to get our hands in the dirt. J.H.
03/04/2010 7:04:00 AM CST
Maria says ...
Thanks for this article, I just start doing my own garden at home, I live in mexico and we have very good weather. Just not a lot of gardening but I am learning, thanks for your advice and I hope to learn much more from you.
03/04/2010 8:50:39 AM CST
anna says ...
I always use starter plants because I get too excited and want to see my veg/fruits grow. One year my romaine lettuce got so big, it started to grow like a tree. Another year, I had pumpkin growing in between my fence space. It was weird and wonderful.
03/04/2010 9:25:29 AM CST
Liz Sanders says ...
Can someone address growing successfully sweet peas (flowers) from seed in Winston-Salem, NC. When should the be planted? I soak them but usually have one or two plants that come up? We have a short spring growing season and frost can occur as late as mid-April? Thanks in advance.
03/05/2010 12:24:17 PM CST
parkerj says ...
Hi Jane and Liz, That's Durham NC yes? I can't say for sure about what is available in your area but I will say I have gotten great results starting seeds indoors and transplanting when the plant is established. This protects the young plant from wind, rain, and cold nighttime temps (all of which can stunt or kill early shoots). I've gotten good results from a seed company called Botananical Interest (they have a on-line store if your local retailer dosn't carry them). The compost sold at Whole Foods make a great starter soil- the third leaf that emerges is usually my signal for when my sweet peas are ready for the outdoor garden. Good luck- spring isn't spring without sweet peas. "Springtime in Paris" is my favorite variety if you can find it.
03/05/2010 12:59:28 PM CST
Liz Sanders says ...
Thanks James-- I already have my Botanical Gardens sweet peas from Whole Foods soaking. I have found a very small diameter wind chime great as a planting tool for certain seeds. Any information about growing stock?
03/05/2010 9:02:20 PM CST
TechMom says ...
I've been toying with the idea of starting a container garden. I live in an urban city and adore fresh veggies and herbs. Starter plants it is. I don't have much room, nor much room for failure. I heart Whole Foods! Hoping to learn much more.
03/06/2010 10:54:48 AM CST
Roger L Whited says ...
Some seeds need to be frozen for a short time.. and the ones with protective coatings ( the long germ_) in organic gardening mag this mo. it had that u rough the coats on the seeds. with sand paper or by putting them in a jar filled with sand.& shaking til the gloss is off the seeds. they will germinate sooner. See Organic Gardening new release. I envy that u can plant so early.. we have too wait 'till April and then it is still a big ???. Now I put in that mag cause I didn't want to take credit for something not mine.>mine...You can still sew into a large pan and transplant when they sprout to two first leaves.. to another pot.. and use that old storm window for a hot house.. thank you for your encouragement.. rog w
03/06/2010 7:35:36 PM CST
Roger L Whited says ...
I didn't read the others before I put in my 2 cents worth. U can use flour in a paste and use the bottom of a small pot to roll on wet newspaper, dipped in the floured water(glue)( then dry)) then fill with potting soul, put in seed, at planting time plant pot and all! The cherry tom's are a source of viable seeds! You can do both seeds and plants and use the comparison.sweet peas did u ever use an inoculant(sp) your dad might have,? if the roots are viesable and u take apart the pot to see a big ball u need to gently separate
03/06/2010 7:54:38 PM CST
Roger L Whited says ...
the roots , gently put your finger in the center of the potting and separate , otherwise they may do nothing and keep wrapping around... container gardening depends on what the soil is , don't use garden soul in a pot unless u use some amendments to keep the soil well drained and still hold water.. regular soil might not let the water get to the roots... well there is another three cents.. I am just learning how this comptr,. works and I hit some key that put the 2nd gab'ulation in there.. and I didn't know it had been put down so I started 'nother one before discovery!!!! thank you rog w.
03/06/2010 8:11:40 PM CST
parkerj says ...
Thanks Roger- it's easy for me to ignore spelling if you are giving sound advice. I've heard about sanding seeds but the sand in the jar sounds like a great idea for small seeds (I'll have to try that). the tips for seperating root bound starters are also very informative- Thanks!
03/08/2010 9:34:05 AM CST
Mary http://www.mygreendiet.com says ...
I am a novice gardener trying to make my vegetables grow. This was very helpful. thank you
03/08/2010 6:43:28 PM CST
Kimmy says ...
I can't wait once I start getting the seed catalogs so I start my veggies & herbs from seed. It also gives me that added pinch of hope that spring will be around soon when there is snow outside. I'm in the northeast so I use raised beds (check out Square Foot Gardening) to help with the clay/rocky soil I have here. When planting carrots (& potatoes) that need depth, you just build your raised bed up an extra level. I'll be experimenting with that this year. Great Article. Whole Foods is finally coming to my town. Opens March 17th - Can't wait especially now that it was mentioned they carry compost! (another work in progress for me).
03/09/2010 12:49:59 PM CST
hsiaw says ...
Generally due to temperature and moisture levels, over time, seeds can become unusable. We recommend storing seeds in a cool, dry place in airtight container to minimize these effects.
03/18/2010 3:18:48 PM CDT
jamie says ...
i would like to start my own garden but where do i buy the seeds from
12/05/2012 1:23:01 PM CST
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@JAMIE - You can find seeds in a variety of places. Our floral department should have some seeds that are in season for the time of year. Otherwise, check with a local nursery in your area as they would probably have some!
12/06/2012 1:16:18 PM CST