Gardening

Seeds vs. Plants: A Buying Guide for Budding Gardeners

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

May 27, 2021
Photo by Martin Hambleton

During the second half of May, I keep an eye on the weather forecast (even more obsessively than usual), because I have dozens of vegetable plants ready to be transplanted into the garden. Here in northeastern Pennsylvania, we can still get a late frost that would be fatal for my tender young plants.

My garden is a mixture of plants from nurseries and ones that I started myself from seed, and whether you should grow from seed or buy plants very much depends on your individual situation. 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 like lettuce and spinach. For all the others, here’s a list of factors to consider.


Hunting For Heirlooms?

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 to be found 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.


Can You Bathe Your Seedlings in 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 they 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 emulate sunlight. A new trick I tried this year is to use the LED lights from my hydrogarden after removing the water bowls and grow decks. I am happy to report that the seedlings are the strongest I have ever grown.


Ready to Make a Commitment?

Ask yourself whether you can invest the time and effort to start from seeds. It means watering daily, sometimes 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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“@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.”
— Nadia H.
Comment

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 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.


The Quantity Factor

How many plants of a vegetable you want is also a factor. 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 (seed viability depends on the vegetable). 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. This way I get fresh seeds every year. For tomatoes, I like to have one or two plants for each variety—the famous San Marzano tomatoes for sauce and canning, and beefsteak and cherry tomatoes for eating fresh. Buying a seed packet for each variety does not make much sense economically. 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—the demand for both seeds and plants has skyrocketed since last year.

How do you choose between buying seeds or plants? Tell us your methodology below!
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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

5 Comments

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):
-cilantro/coriander
-basil (any variety)
-tomatoes
-peppers
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:

-parsley
-radishes
-lettuce
-zucchini
 
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.
 
Author Comment
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 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.