Grow Your Own Way

Seeds vs. Plants: A Buying Guide for Vegetable Gardeners

Use this checklist to find out what works best for you.

April 18, 2022
Photo by Rocky Luten

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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 plot, raised 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.

This post was updated in April 2022 with more ways to choose between buying seeds and plants.

How do you choose between buying seeds or plants? Tell us your methodology below!
Photo by Angelyn Cabrales

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • HalfPint
  • Smaug
  • Nadia Hassani
    Nadia Hassani
Writer, editor, and translator


HalfPint May 27, 2021
I have a hard time with growing certain things from seed (not quite sure why & believe me, I have tried and tried):
-basil (any variety)
Maybe they sense my resentment ;)
So it is better for me to get small plants/seedlings for the list above.

Seeds that are alway successful for me:

Smaug May 28, 2021
That is a bit odd- the plants you mention are usually no problem. Is your difficulty with germinating the seeds or in getting the seedlings to develop? Buying basil and cilantro plants can be problematic; they're expensive and bolt quite easily- cilantro hates being transplanted- they really need successive sowings throughout the season. Peppers and tomatoes are less of a problem to buy; professional growers will have the plants ready earlier than you can get them at home, good nurseries will carry enough variety to satisfy most, they transplant easily, and the economics don't particularly favor seeds for small numbers of plants.
Nadia H. May 28, 2021
@HalfPint: If your seeds are not germinating, other than the usual culprits - seeds no longer viable or stored improperly, lack of moisture, temperatures issues, using soil rather than a soilless medium for seed starting - it could also be that they are seeded too deeply, the rule of thumb is no deeper than two times the width, i.e. 1/8 deep for seeds measuring 1/16 in width. Some seeds even need light to germinate. And sometimes these failures are hard to figure out, I have trouble growing spinach and always get very poor germination although I think I do all the right things.
Smaug May 28, 2021
This is so- also some Seeds need lack of light. If you get deeper into growing from seed you'll run into some odd stuff; a lot of seeds are set to germinate only after a fire, or after one or more freeze/thaw cycles. I've burned seeds under piles of pine needles, boiled them, soaked them in acid, filed holes in seed coats, all kinds of stuff. But food crops in general, certainly the ones you name, have no particular needs. I do find that soaking squash seeds in warm water helps them out a bit. Soil is a bit of a question- seeds will naturally germinate in the soil they will grow in (although some, such as berry seeds, more often than not are germinated in nature with a manure starter), but it's often not ideal as far as moisture holding, texture and soil borne pathogens and pests can be a huge problem under artificial germination conditions- better off investing a bit in a sterile medium; coconut coir is very good; vermiculite and even sand can be good. Commercial potting mixes are not ideal, but they're generally sterile and will get the job done, and often makers will offer a seed starting mix as well.
Smaug April 18, 2022
Update- I've had some very strange results this year from a coconut coir seedling starter- the seeds germinate fine, but the roots simply don't want to grow in it. Had to restart my tomatoes especially- I used homemade compost, which is a tad risky but has worked fine.
Smaug May 27, 2021
Seeds used to be the go to for us cheapskates, but things have changed a lot; the 69 cent packets with hundreds of seeds are mostly replaced by several-dollar packets of very few seeds (thanks to fancy new packaging equipment) so the economics are sort of dicey for growing a few plants. Durability varies a lot- tomato seeds are actually remarkably tough (they often survive composting) and with moderate care will last for several years; others- particularly large seeds like squashes- are very undependable after one year. Most of the annual/biennial herbs need to be started from seed; they can be pricked out and moved at a very young stage, but generally tend to bolt very easily. Fortunately, the seed packets are generous, and most of the plants will produce plenty of seed. I've found parsley to naturalize particularly well and make a nice addition to general garden greenery; it can be quite attractive in flower as well. For my fellow cheapskates, I've found that most peppers will come true from seed, so you can collect from your plants. They can also be collected from ripe (which usually means red) storebought peppers or, less reliably, the Mexican types from dried peppers. Pepper seeds keep fairly well- not as well as tomatoes.
I consider a proper (and pretty simple) setup for seed starting to be essential. You need an enclosure- usually a plastic tray with a clear plastic cover with some ventilation, a heating mat for bottom heat, and lights. I mostly use Hydro Farm equipment, which is effective and inexpensive, but others, such as Park Seeds, have sturdier and possibly more durable (and more expensive) setups. The lighting situation has improved dramatically with high output LED's, but setups with stands to hold the lights and so forth are pretty costly; you could build your own, or just pay it- with the LED lights a setup will be very durable. A lot of the lamps made for plants only produce the light frequencies that plants actually use (no green, especially)- this is a bit more efficient; it produces a sort of purplish light that you may or may not like, and plants tend to look black under those lights. No problem with full spectrum lights, though- the plants won't use all the frequencies, but they're burning very little electricity so a brighter light won't be a big expense.