When planting a vegetable garden in the spring, you can either plant seeds or purchase seedlings from your local garden center. While seeds are inexpensive when compared to the cost of vegetable seedlings, there are other factors to consider in making your decision.
Growing vegetables from seeds may not be practical for long-season plants in regions with short growing seasons. That's why, when it comes to long-season plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, most gardeners purchase seedlings or established potted plants from the nursery—or start their seeds indoors weeks before planting time.
Everything You Need to Know About Starting an Edible Seed Garden
How to Choose Between Seeds and Transplants
The choice between direct seeding and transplanting seedlings comes down to a few basic questions:
- Is the vegetable easy to germinate from seed?
- Is the growing season long enough for the vegetable to mature if planted from seed?
- Does the vegetable need special care to grow well from seed?
- Does the vegetable transplant well?
Answers to these three questions will determine how you plant your vegetable garden. To some degree, your answers will depend on your regional climate. In southern gardens where the growing season runs from February to November, there is plenty of time to grow tomatoes and peppers from seed, but in a northern climate where the growing season is only five months long, a gardener may run out of time.
However, even in southern climates, some plants, like tomatoes and peppers, benefit from seed starting indoors--or purchased transplants. These plants often face challenges when started from seeds directly sown in the garden. Tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings, for instance, are highly susceptible to fungal disease that may be present in garden soil. They may succumb to "dampening off"--which can be better controlled in a warm, indoor environment. They also need warm soil and good light, which is easier to achieve inside with a heat mat and grow lights. So even in long-season gardens, it may be better to start seeds inside or purchase transplants of these trickier plants.
The seed packet itself provides a wealth of information to help you make your choice:
- Time to Maturity. This will tell you how long after the seed sprouts that the plant reaches maturity. If the packet indicates maturity is reached at 75 days, you won't get produce until after that time.
- Sow Time. The seed packet will tell you when the seeds should be planted relative to the last frost date in your area. It may even indicate that the seeds must be started indoors, as much as eight weeks before the last frost. These are vegetables you will want to plant as seedlings unless you are up to the challenge of starting them indoors.
Vegetables That Are Usually Direct-Seeded in the Garden
Root crops and vegetables with long taproots, such as carrots, generally don't transplant well and need to be direct seeded. Some quick growing crops, like peas and summer squash, don't benefit from being started indoors because plants direct seeded in the garden will quickly catch up to transplants. Here are some common vegetables that are normally direct-seeded:
Vegetables That Are Often Transplanted as Seedlings
Although it is possible to grow just about any vegetable from seeds, more slow-growing vegetables are often planted as seedlings that have been started indoors. The following are usually more convenient to transplant into the garden as established seedlings:
- Brussels sprouts
- Chinese cabbage
- Collards greens
Vegetables That Are Started From Roots or Bulbs
Then there are a handful of vegetables that aren't usually planted from seeds or seedlings at all, but from root divisions or bulbs:
- Asparagus: Planted from 1-year-old roots, but can also be grown from seed
- Garlic and Shallots: Planted from cloves
- Horseradish: Planted from root cuttings
- Onions: Planted from sets, although they can also be grown from seeds
- Potatoes: Planted from seed potatoes/divisions
- Rhubarb: Planted from root crowns
- Sweet Potatoes: Planted from slips
Whatever your choice, direct seeding, seed starting or purchasing seedlings, it's best to decide on a strategy well before planting time. Get your plants in the ground as early as possible so they have time to acclimate to the warming weather and to give them the longest growing season possible.