Seeds vs. starts – Factors to consider when deciding what's best for your garden
April 20, 2023 | View PDF
When starting a garden, the first step is often deciding what will be in the garden. Will it be a vegetable garden? Will flowers and fruits be included too? These are important questions to answer ahead of time.
Another important question is whether to use seeds or plant starts in the garden. Though both have their pros and cons, they are both valuable in gardens for their unique qualities.
Seeds are typically more affordable, though require more effort. Plant starts are more durable but can lack variety in the same ways that seeds do.
To help you decide whether to use a seed or plant starts in your garden this year, two of Oregon’s nursery experts offered their advice.
“Lots of crops can be done both ways, “said Darren Morgan, nursery manager of Shonnard’s Nursery and Florist in Corvallis, Oregon. “Do what you’re comfortable with. Don’t be afraid,”
Using seeds works well for gardeners who want a variety of plants for an affordable price.
“Seeds are cheaper and more cost-effective. You get a lot more for the price,” said Sara Ori, president of Portland Nursery, which has two locations in the city. “I personally think watching seeds pop up is so magical, where you get to just put this dry seed in some soil, water it, and all of a sudden, there’s life.”
Seeds are better for variety than plant starts because a seed pack can come with not only multiple seeds but a diverse group, unlike plant starts, which are planted separately.
“There are a lot of plants that actually grow better from seeds than they do from transplants,” Morgan said. “There’s a couple of reasons why: some plants don’t like to get root bound and transplanted. Others have issues with being moved.”
Root crops such as beets, turnips, and carrots establish better when planted as seeds.
“All of the melon and squash family, and cucumbers, you can certainly grow them from transplants. It’s not impossible but they resent being handled much,” Morgan said. “In my many years of gardening, I’ve shifted back to growing these as seeds.”
Lettuce and cilantro can work well when grown from seeds but require oversight, Ori said.
“They can be nice to grow from seeds. You can plant them in increments so they’re not all harvesting or bolting at once,” Ori said. “You have to really watch out for slugs though.”
Two negatives of seeds are limitations on what vegetables thrive when grown as seeds and the amount of work that is required to keep them alive.
“What doesn’t do well as a seed varies location by location. For example, tomatoes and peppers. If you grow them in western Oregon, you might not have enough time to successfully grow those crops because of winter weather,” Morgan said.
Seeds generally don’t work for high-depth vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.
“Veggies like these often suffer pretty poorly as seed starts. They’re highly sensitive to a lot of organisms, and diseases often kill young seedlings. That’s one of the reasons we grow our starts in sterilized soil. It can make a significant difference,” Morgan said.
Fertilizing seeds with a product such as Liquid Seaweed can help improve their viability, Ori said.
“Seeds can be more work. You have to maintain them. You don’t want them to dry out but you don’t want to overwater them. You have to be on top of transplanting them when it’s time,” Ori said. “There’s a bigger margin for error with seeds. And it’s a bigger time commitment.”
Ori suggests gardeners use a seedling mix when growing seeds because it will allow the seeds to push through the soil better.
“You have to keep a really close eye on them and baby them so they aren’t too dry or wet,” Ori said.
It’s also essential to know when to transplant and trim seed-grown plants. When growing plants from seeds, start with three seeds at a time so at least one of them is likely to grow. If more than one grows, cut off the extra growths so there is only one plant growing and it isn’t competing for space, Ori said.
Seeds also require a warm, sunny place to grow, such as a sunny window or greenhouse. In Portland, most windows that are not south-facing will need supplemental light. Once plants start to grow, they should be rotated occasionally so all sides receive sunlight, Ori said.
Seed-grown plants also should be hardened, meaning they are slowly transitioned to outside temperatures, once outdoor temperatures are consistently over 40 degrees.
“Tender plants may require higher temperatures before beginning hardening off. This can be done by moving indoor seed starts outdoors into a shady spot during the day — just for a few hours at first, progressively adding more outdoor time — but bringing them in at night,” Ori said. “Do this over the course of two weeks.”
Using a plant start may be beneficial depending on what type of plant is being grown. Plant starts are also popular for beginners and for those who want more resilient plants.
“Starts require less maintenance and are a little bit easier for beginners,” Ori said. “If you don’t have a greenhouse, you can usually get a jump if you have starts. They’ve already been started and are bigger.”
Plant starts are more resilient than plants grown from seeds because they’re older plants that have been established in the ground. This is an advantage because the plants stand a better chance to survive during cold weather or surprise frosts.
“You can start different plants at different times and start them in a sterile medium so they’re more established and more robust. Young seedlings can be killed off much easier than starts,” Morgan said. “The advantages are there for established plants.”
Legumes, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce work both as seeds and starts, Morgan said. He recommends growing nightshade crops, peppers, eggplants, and leaf crops as plant starts.
“I like to do a lot of my leaf crops from a transplant. There’s just less of a chance of things going wrong,” Morgan said.
Ori recommends using a mix of compost and fertilizer when using plant starts.
“We like Sure Start as a transplanting fertilizer if in the ground,” Ori said.
The two biggest negatives of using plant starts are timing and cost.
The quality of a plant start is the first thing to examine before purchasing it from a store.
“There’s a number of things that can happen with transplants,” Morgan said. “A number of plants don’t like to be handled and resent being handled.”
For those who choose to grow their plant starts at home, it’s essential to plan ahead and be cautious of factors like weather and when the starts will need to be transplanted.
“If the weather doesn’t cooperate, some plants you can hold on to — like tomatoes, you can hold on to them and they’ll get larger. Other plants will get root bound or stressed from transplanting,” Morgan said.
The second downside of using plant starts is their cost. Generally, the price of one plant start may be equal to the cost of several seeds.
“Starts don’t have a huge amount of expense but it does get up there,” Morgan said. “Tomatoes are a great example because I’ll plant a bunch of tomatoes and they’re all different varieties. I can go buy these as transplants but if I buy seeds, they’ll last me a few years.”