Starting Seeds vs. Buying Plants: Pros and Cons
It’s likely one of the first questions on a new gardener’s mind. Should you buy plants at the local nursery or big box store? Or sift through a catalog, picking out packets to start your plants from seed? Gardening expert Kelli Klein reviews the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Both starting seeds and buying plants have a place in every garden. Growing from seed has the allure of picking out beautiful packets with tons of potential. Many gardeners have a wintertime ritual of sitting down with a seed catalog in the middle of the off-season and pouring over the pages that allow the hopes and dreams for the future garden to bubble up to the surface.
Buying plants comes with benefits, too. The plants are already past the delicate seedling stage, where they need a lot of attention. They are ready to go out into the garden without too much fuss. Buying plants can be a time saver since you don’t have to spend time germinating seeds or propagating plants.
The Short Answer
So which one is better? Well, the short answer is: it depends. A huge benefit of seed starting is that it is cheaper. For example, you can buy a packet of 500 seeds for $5, which has the potential to grow into 500 plants. That same plant for sale at the nursery may also be $5 for one single plant. You can see how seeds can save you money in the long run. Some drawbacks to seeds include the waiting time during germination and the need for a seed starting area.
Buying plants can give a head start on the season since nurseries and big box stores generally have them available right at the start of the season. No special equipment is required to get them going, and you’ll have the opportunity to pick out the healthiest plants.
Some drawbacks of live plants include that they are more expensive and there are usually limited varieties available. Each option has benefits and drawbacks, depending on your skill level, time and space, and how much you want to invest in your garden.
The Long Answer
Firstly, you’ll need to time your seed starting so that plants are at transplant size at the appropriate time in the season. Some seeds, like eggplant, take a long time to germinate and reach a transplantable size. You might be surprised to discover that to have eggplants ready to plant in May, you may need to start the seeds in February!
Luckily, this information is generally printed on the back of the seed packets. Pay close attention to germination times, the suggested transplanting windows, and your last frost date. This information will help you create a timeline.
Seed starting will also require a seed starting area, which can be as complex as a grow tent with special grow lights or as simple as a sunny windowsill. This can be considered a drawback if you don’t have the space or an optimally south-facing warm, sunny windowsill.
If you are directly seeding your plants into the garden, a designated indoor area is not required. But this still could be a deciding factor in whether you start seeds or buy plants.
When buying plants, there are a few drawbacks as well. The main drawback is that it is more expensive. A single packet of seeds can yield hundreds of plants, but you only get one for a similar cost when buying plants.
This can add up significantly if you are growing a large garden or want to produce many edible plants to replace a portion of your grocery budget. In this case, buying plants wouldn’t make sense.
Additionally, you are beholden to the varieties available at the nursery or big box stores when purchasing plants. Big box stores generally have less variety available. Since they must guarantee that the plants will sell, they usually use the most popular varieties.
This isn’t a big deal unless you want to experiment with growing unique varieties or perhaps edible varieties you can’t readily find at the grocery store. Local nurseries usually have more variety than big box stores but don’t offer as much variety as buying seeds. Again, this choice will depend on your overall garden goals!
What About Direct Seeding?
If you want to bypass the need for a seed-starting space, you might consider directly seeding into your garden. This is great for some plants that germinate and grow quickly, but others, like the eggplant mentioned above, have a very long growing period.
Those who live in an area with a short season might not have enough time to direct-sow things like eggplants, peppers, or tomatoes. You can determine the length of your season by calculating the days between your last frost in the spring and your first frost in the fall.
Suppose the time between frosts is less than it will take to germinate seeds, grow plants to transplantable size, transplant them into the garden, and complete the “days to harvest” listed on the seed packet. In that case, it is likely not a good candidate for direct seeding, and those seeds will need to be started indoors.
Good candidates for direct seeding include root vegetables like carrots, large seeds that germinate quickly, and plants with long taproots since both do not like root disturbance.
Root Vegetables and Tubers
Perhaps the most obvious candidates for direct seeding are root vegetables like radishes, carrots, beets, parsnips, and turnips. Tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes should also be planted directly into the ground, where they will complete their full life cycle.
Once these tubers and roots develop, they do not appreciate disturbance. Disturbing the roots at this stage can cause knotty or mangled roots. For this reason, it is recommended to directly seed these plants rather than buy live plants, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see them for sale at some stores. Resist the urge to buy carrot seedlings!
Large Seeds that Germinate Quickly
Several large seeds germinate quickly once the soil is warm in the late spring/early summer. These crops can be sown directly into the ground, making them great candidates for starting from seed without requiring an indoor space.
These crops include peas, beans, corn, and cucurbit family members like melons, cucumbers, summer squash, and winter squash. The seeds can be started indoors and transplanted out, but they don’t need to be and do very well when directly seeded.
Plants with Long Taproots
Plants with long taproots, like milkweed, mallows (poppy mallow, hollyhocks, or hibiscus), and parsley, have exceptionally long taproots that don’t do well when disturbed during transplanting. Does that mean they’re impossible to transplant? No. But they can be damaged during transplant. Growth will be set back, and they might not thrive as a directly seeded plant would.
Specifically, in the case of milkweed, the seeds germinate best when they go through a period of cold stratification. This means the seeds prefer to be out in the ground over winter to experience a cold period, then the warming weather of the early spring signals the seeds to sprout. In the case of these plants with long taproots, it makes sense to direct-seed them when possible.
Even though it is recommended to start these plants from seed, specifically, to directly sow them to avoid root disturbance, it’s entirely possible to also transplant them out and have success. Both radishes and beets can be transplanted if it is done at a young enough stage. Carrots are much trickier, and it’s best to directly seed them.
Peas, corn, beans, and cucurbits can also be started indoors. They just don’t have to be started indoors, considering how easily they germinate and how quickly they grow once the soil is warm enough. The choice will be up to you, depending on how much time and space you dedicate.
When Does Buying Plants Make More Sense?
Although beginning with seed has many benefits, there are some instances where buying plants makes more sense. Some plants take years to flower or produce fruit. Growing an already established plant in cases like this would be beneficial.
Asparagus is a perfect example since it can take up to 4 years to get a measurable harvest. While you can start asparagus from seed, you might want to harvest years sooner. You can buy one to two-year-old asparagus crowns, which can get you that much closer to delicious, tender spring asparagus. In this case, it would make more sense to buy asparagus crowns rather than start from seed.
Some flowering perennials like foxglove, hollyhock, primrose, black-eyed Susan, columbine, some coneflowers, and some poppies are biennials. This means that they don’t flower until their second year of growth.
You can start these plants from seed, but you’ll have to wait until their second year of growth to enjoy their blooms. For this reason, you might buy plants that are at least in their second year and are already flowering.
Another instance in which buying plants makes more sense is when selecting fruiting plants. Most fruiting trees, shrubs, and bushes need multiple years to produce fruit. Peach and apple trees need around five years of growth before they begin to fruit.
Raspberries produce fruit on their second-year canes only. Canes that grow in the current season won’t produce fruit until the following year. Blueberry bushes also don’t produce fruit until at least their second year of growth. Could you drop a peach pit into the ground and grow a tree from seed? Absolutely! But you’ll have to wait at least five years for fruit vs. buying a young tree already a few years old.
Flowering biennials and fruiting plants are two prime examples of how buying seedlings can get you a massive head start vs. starting seeds. Since fruiting trees, shrubs, and bushes can take multiple years to produce fruit, do yourself a favor and buy an established plant! After all, the best time to plant a fruit tree is four years ago.
Is Seed Starting Difficult?
A big mental roadblock that prevents many new gardeners from starting seeds is a lack of confidence and a misconception that the process is difficult. It doesn’t have to be! As mentioned above, your designated space can be as simple as a warm, sunny south-facing windowsill.
There are also many tools available that can increase your seed-starting success, like heat mats and cell trays. The trick is to start slowly. If you usually buy all of your tomato plants, maybe one year, try to start one variety from seed and see how it goes. After all, practice makes perfect, and season after season, you’ll gain confidence and nail down a seed-starting system that works for you and your space.
Seed starting sounds scary, but it isn’t! Seeds want to grow, and given moisture and warmth, they will sprout. Most edible vegetable seeds are straightforward to sprout. On the other end of the spectrum exists the Chinese bamboo tree that takes five years of daily watering to sprout through the soil! We’ll leave that one to the experts!
Seed starting and buying plants both have their place in the garden. The choice will vary depending on the space available, how much time and money you want to invest, and your current skill level. It will also depend on which plants you want to grow since some do much better when started from seed, and some do better when grown from established plants. However, I would recommend that everyone give seeds a try.
Consider direct-seeding into your garden if you’re tight on space. Growing a plant from seed to maturity is so rewarding! And planting large seeds that are easy to germinate, like melons, is a great activity for kids. It gets them involved in the garden, and they witness the whole process from start to finish. Still, buying plants is a great way to get things in the ground if you’re tight on time. No matter your chosen method, getting out there and growing is important!