Seeds vs. plants: A buying guide for vegetable gardeners

Use this checklist to find out what works best for you

Published April 30, 2022 4:29PM (EDT)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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Vibrant, marbled pineapple tomatoes; adorable Easter Egg radishes without a single crack, unblemished rainbow Swiss chard leaves: looking at the images of vegetables in seed catalogs can be inspirational but also disappointing because you know that none of your homegrown veggies will ever look like this. The kaleidoscope of those images is an effective tactic, though: it makes you buy more seeds than you need. It also makes you buy seeds for vegetables that you're probably better off buying as seedlings.

While I have been gardening for almost two decades now, I'm still not immune to those temptations. But following a set of clear criteria — what to grow from seed and what to buy as seedings, and in what quantity — has helped me become a much more realistic shopper for my vegetable garden.

And that brings me straight to my first guiding criterion: Am I being realistic?

The reality check

Everything you plant, whether it's grown from seed or plants from a nursery, needs watering, fertilizing, possibly pruning, weeding, inspecting for pests and diseases and prompt treatment, harvesting, and processing. New gardeners often get overwhelmed and give up because they did not expect it to be so much work. Think in small steps and be reasonable in your expectations. It is essential that before shopping for seeds or seedlings you make a blueprint of your garden plotraised beds, or containers to find out how much space you have, and what you can actually fit in it. Unless you have a large homestead-style garden and can devote most of your free time tending to it all summer, expect that your homegrown vegetables will only supplement what you buy and that you won't be able to live off the land.

The heirloom hunt

Seed companies will carry tons more varieties of any given vegetable than what you'll be able to find already growing at a nursery. There are more than 10,000 different tomato varieties available as seeds, while a well-stocked nursery might carry two dozen varieties at best. If you have your mind set on more unusual varieties (including heirlooms) that you cannot find as plants, starting from seed is the way to go. Keep in mind that root vegetables such as beets and parsnips don't transplant well, and they should be directly seeded in the garden, as should be beans, peas, and leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach.

Find the light

The need for sufficient light for seed starting cannot be overstated. I have found that the often-recommended sunny window for your seedlings just won't do — soon they start bending toward the light, and the seedlings get leggier with every inch they are removed from the light source. Unless you are the lucky owner of a greenhouse, you will need full-spectrum growth lights that simulate sunlight. A new trick I tried last year is to use the LED lights from my hydrogarden after removing the water bowls and grow decks and the seedlings were the strongest I have ever grown.

Prepare for a commitment

Ask yourself whether you can invest the time and effort to start from seeds. It means watering daily, usually twice a day. Letting seeds dry out even the slightest bit during germination is an absolute no-no, and keeping them consistently moist is key.

You also need to monitor the temperature. For example, tomato seeds germinate best at 65°F to 85°F; anything lower or higher will delay germination — or the seeds won't germinate at all.

Consider the timing

When you start seeds indoors to get a head start on the growing season, the proper timing with the start of warm weather is crucial. Start your seeds too soon, and your plants will reach the size where they need to be transplanted when it is still too cold for the tender seedlings to survive outdoors. Leaving them indoors longer is not an option because the seedlings tend to get weak and spindly — they need natural light to get stronger.

. . . and the overall cost

Seed packets are often touted as cheaper than buying plants, but once you add up all the costs of a proper setup for seed starting, plus figure in your time and effort, it might be more economical to just buy plants. It's the safer way, too, as you don't have to deal with the uncertainties of seed starting.

Seed packets usually contain much more than you will be able to fit in your garden, but you don't have to use all the seeds in one year; some seeds are good for at least another year. I love Fairy Tale eggplants, which are difficult to find at local nurseries; that's why I start them from seed and split the packet with a friend. It cuts down on the cost, and this way I get to reorder fresh seeds every year.

The quantity factor

How many plants of a particular vegetable and variety you want is also a factor. For tomatoes, I like a bunch of different varieties — mostly the famous San Marzano tomatoes for sauce and canning, plus beefsteak, red and yellow cherry tomatoes for eating fresh. Buying a seed packet of each variety, just to get a couple of plants, does not make much sense. The same applies to bell peppers and hot peppers.

For herbs, it depends. If you just need a few basil leaves for caprese or a batch of pesto, buy a plant or two. But if you're like me, you can never have enough basil for pesto, freezing, and drying, so growing basil from seed is the best option. The same holds true for parsley. To make, say, tabbouleh, one plant doesn't get you very far.

Another consideration is that you can keep harvesting certain annual herbs only until they start blooming. To ensure a constant supply of cilantro and dill, you'll need consecutive generations of plants, so growing them from seed is best. By the time you need a new cilantro plant, all the nurseries will be likely sold out.

Rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, and many other herbs are perennials, and one plant is usually enough to cover your needs. In this case, buying a plant makes more sense than starting from seed. Plus, herbs are slow and finicky to germinate — parsley takes 14 to 30 days.

Whatever you decide, don't delay your shopping — because of the increased interest in gardening, the demand for both seeds and plants has skyrocketed in the past two years.

By Nadia Hassani

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