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Spring Dilemma: Seeds or Starter Plants

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.