Garden Q + A: Transplants vs. Seeds

Garden Q + A: Transplants vs. Seeds

In case you haven't noticed, absolutely everyone is talking about seeds! Whether it's purchasing them from the garden center or starting them indoors, seeds are everywhere this time of year. I currently have over 4,300 plants started in my makeshift greenhouse (our sunporch covered in greenhouse plastic). That sounds a little crazy even to me... But it's pretty amazing to think considering the space is small and we really didn't spend that much on all of those plants. We purchased seeds, and they produced really well for us!

A while back a reader wrote in and asked, When should I use transplants from the store vs. seeds? 

I thought that was a great topic to cover here! When should you buy transplants? It's kind of a tricky question to ask because it's particular to your needs and desires. I know several people who garden solely with transplants. It's more a matter of opinion than success. Though it can mean success or failure for your garden depending on how diligent you are at the practice. Let's look at the pros and cons of both transplants and seeds, and you can make the decision for yourself. 

Pros of Transplants

  • Transplants mean harvests sooner! For instance, I try to purchase herb transplants so that I have plenty of herbs to harvest in that first growing season. Many herbs are perennials (mint, oregano, thyme, chives, savory, rosemary, sage, and tarragon to name a few). Because we live in a place that has pretty cold winter nights, that can sometimes damage the plant resulting in it either not coming back at all or having a poor crop. Either way, I really enjoyed using transplants last year for our sensitive herbs because I was able to really watch them flourish. Starting herbs from seeds is hard and it takes a long time before you get anything!
  • Transplants for vegetables and fruits also means vegetables and fruits sooner... If you are late to the game of starting your garden, then a transplant might be your new best friend. You can plant them later in the garden and still get the results you want.
  • You don't have the spend the money on seed starting supplies (trays, humidity domes, potting soil, etc).
  • There's no stressing on if your seeds will start and if you can keep seedlings alive. They just go straight into the ground when you get home!

Cons of Transplants

  • You don't have a lot of options when it comes to variety. If you are hoping to grow a cut flower garden with your favorite color flowers, don't expect to find anything special or fancy at the garden center. This is not always true, but more garden centers that I have ever been to only carry the standard popular colors for flowers (hot pink, red, white, yellow, purple). Those are great, but I personally try to look for warmer tones like whites, peach, cream, buttery yellows, salmons, and sunset oranges. The same goes for vegetables and fruits. If you are wanting to get a specific type of tomato, you may have a hard time finding it at the garden center. They are going to have your standard plant because that's what most people buy. If you want an artisan pepper, it's better to start from seed!
  • You don't know if they are organic seed or GMO seed. You also don't know if the fertilizer and/or potting soil the plant has been living in is organic. This is a situation where you can ask the greenhouse... but I don't know if I always trust that. You just don't know really. You are relying upon someone else's word. If you are comfortable with that, then do your thing! I would not want a transplant that was grown from a genetically modified seed to eat
  • They die easily if not put in the ground right away. I have killed a greenhouse transplant on more than one occasion by forgetting about them. This usually happens when the space you are hoping to plant in is not ready. Just make sure that if you do buy transplants that you harden them off and have their garden bed ready. If you don't - remember to water them and keep them in the right type of sunlight for the type of plant you have!
  • You won't have a harvest as quickly. The whole point of starting your own seeds (along with other benefits) is that you get plants faster. Greenhouses around here don't open up until around mid-April to May. I could have already planted hardy greens, brassicas, and peas by then! If you want plants in the ground faster, seeds are a better choice. Not to mention that plants come and go pretty quickly at the greenhouse. You might miss out!

Pros of Seeds

  • You are in control of where the seeds come from. For instance, there are several places where you can purchase seeds specific to your needs. If you want all organic seeds, heirloom varieties, non-GMO, pelleted, modified, etc. you can find them somewhere online. We are currently transitioning our farm to be certified organic (eek!) so we purchased all USDA certified organic seeds. My favorite places to purchase seeds are Botanical Interests, Johnny's Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Seed Savers Exchange. 
  • There are more options when it comes to variety. Want an artisan tomato, heirloom tomato, or paste tomato for canning? You can get all three if you purchase seeds and lots of them. I love finding new and unique varieties to try growing. Not to mention that the flower choices are amazing!
  • You get a lot more bang for your buck. Transplants are expensive! One tomato plant can cost anywhere from $4-$8. Sometimes even more! A packet of organic, heirloom tomato seeds is usually $2... $4 at most! And you can get 30 or more seeds in a packet. That means 30 tomato plants if you really wanted! Did you know that seeds can actually last for years? Most seed companies print their labels to say when the seeds expire or that the seeds are packaged for the certain growing season. This is a ploy to get you to buy more seeds. While the germination rates do go down about 10% every year, the seeds do not expire, and you can still get a handful to sprout if you store them correctly. Not to mention you can save seeds from the plants you grow!

Cons of Seeds

  • You can have poor germination rates. This always happens. Sometimes you just get a bad packet of seed. I've already had my share of bad packets this year, and they sadly all came from the same company. The germination rates were around 30-40%. It was a huge bummer. The bright side of that situation is that I didn't spend hundreds of dollars on them. Make sure you do your research and read reviews about more independent seed companies, as well as the major ones. You can always try an at home germination test, which is when you place 10 seeds on a paper towel on top of your fridge (it's warm there) and spray them water everyday (or every time they dry out). The amount of seeds that grow a sprout is your germination rate. 1 sprout is 10%, 5 sprouts is 50%, and so on.
  • You can have poor luck. Starting plants from seed can be difficult, especially if you have never done it before. There are several factors which can lead to your seedlings' demise such as poor temperatures (too hot or too cold), inadequate light, not enough humidity, or you buried them too deeply/shallowly. I have several posts here on our blog and other parts of the internet that you should definitely check out. Read my seed starting 101 tips, tips on how to care for your seedlings, and even some tips about seed starting that you might not have thought of like bottom water and heating and compacting the soil. 
  • Seeds can mean a late start... or an early beginning. Starting seeds gives you the advantage of getting a head start on plants. Depending upon where you live, you can start seeds indoors in the late winter and be ready to plant in the early spring. Planting earlier means that you'll harvest a crop sooner, but it can also mean frost damage or an unhealthy crop. Or maybe you're in the middle of summer and wanting to start your vegetable garden. If you begin summer squash in June, you won't be able to harvest any zucchini because it's too late (depending on where you live!). Make sure you research when crops are in season for your home climate as well as the days to maturity of most plants. You can read both of my seed starting guides for both spring and autumn gardens, which explain when to start certain types of veggies!

There are similarities and differences of issues for both types of plants. It's difficult to say what will be the best option for you. For me, transplants are the easy way to do things, and I think that's fine. The only issue that I have with starting my entire garden from transplants is that I don't know what types of seeds the plants were started from (I want all organic seeds) and it's really too expensive for the amount of produce that I want. Starting seeds is a cheaper option for me to get the most plants out of the deal. There are some types of plants that I will only buy transplants for such as perennial herbs (lavender, sage, thyme, rosemary, etc). Annual or biennial herbs are easy to start from seed (basil, parsley, etc). I also like to buy some flower transplants such as sweet alyssum because it can be a pain to plant. Whatever you choose, think ahead about your harvest, and that will help you out!

xoxo Kayla

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