When planting a vegetable garden in the spring, you have the choice between planting seeds or buying seedlings (also called transplants) from the garden center. The decision is not an easy one, and there are advantages to both approaches. Seeds are very, very inexpensive compared to the cost of transplants, but some vegetables are tricky to start from seeds, and others take a long time to mature. Planting 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.
How to Choose Between Seeds and Transplants
The choice between direct seeding and transplanting seedlings comes down to two 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 transplant well?
Answers to these three questions will determine how you plant your vegetable garden, and to some degree, this will also 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.
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 mature can be expected. 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 indicate when the seeds should be planted relative to last frost date. It may even indicate that the seeds must be started indoors, as much as 8 weeks before the last frost. This is probably a vegetable you will want to plant from seedlings unless you have space and 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, really don't benefit from being started indoors as seedlings, 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, the more slow-growing vegetables are often planted from 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:
- Artichokes: Grown by root divisions
- Asparagus: Planted from 1-year-old roots
- Garlic/Shallots: Planted from cloves
- Horseradish: Planted from root cuttings
- Onions: Planted from sets
- 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 this while you are planning your vegetable garden, well before planting time.
Get your plants in the ground as early as possible to give them time to acclimate to the warming weather and to give them the longest growing season possible.