One of the first choices you need to make when deciding what’s going in your garden is the choice between buying ready-to-plant vegetable seedlings from the garden center or seed starting, or a combination of both. Like everything with life, there are pros and cons to both. Let’s cover them quickly.
When to Buy Seedlings from your Local Nursery or Garden Center
Buying seedlings (which is the name for the “mini” vegetable plants you can buy at your local nursery) is really as simple as going to the store and buying whatever plants look good. This is, without a doubt, the easiest of the two options. In fact, the simplicity and ease of buying seedlings is why I recommend that most first-time gardeners go with purchased seedlings. There are a lot of variables going on during your first organic vegetable gardening season, and buying seedlings from the store takes one of them out.
Buying seedlings is also a good choice for plants that maybe you just want one or two of—especially if they are perennials (plants that come back year after year). Peppermint is a perennial, so I’ve never purchased peppermint seeds. I did purchase two peppermint seedlings that are still happily giving us tons of great mint tea years later.
When to Start Your Own Seedlings from Scratch
Once you have a handle on this organic vegetable gardening thing, I highly recommend moving to seed starting for the vast majority of your plants. Seed starting at home means buying a packet of seeds and growing “mini” plants in a controlled environment (a mini greenhouse, a clear plastic tote near a window, etc.) until they are ready to be planted out in the garden.
The reason you do this is to extend your growing season. Many gardeners don’t actually have long enough growing seasons to grow warm-weather crops like cucumbers and tomatoes outdoors from seed. With seed starting, you are able to get non-hardy plants growing earlier indoors, and then you can set them out in the garden after the threat of frost has passed (if you haven’t calculated your last frost day, you can learn how to do that here).
The benefits to seed starting over buying seedlings are numerous:
- It’s way cheaper. WAY cheaper. You can get a packet of 200 seeds (which in theory, could translate into 200 plants) for $2. You’d be lucky to get a single seedling at the garden center for $2.
- You have a ton more options of varieties. With purchased seedlings, you are stuck choosing from a small variety of plants that the plant companies determine are good for the masses. With seed starting, you can grow the craziest, weirdest plants (blue tomatoes! orange cauliflower! ghost peppers!). We’re talking thousands of options instead of just a couple dozen.
- You have complete control over the plants. With purchased seedlings, you really don’t know what synthetic fertilizers or herbicides or other non-organic chemicals are applied to the plants before you get them. You have no idea how often they have been watered or what kinds of pests they could have. You rescue these plants having no idea how well they were taken care of. And while it’s completely possible for a knowledgeable gardener to rehabilitate almost any plant, it’s always better to start off with healthy plants.
- The affordability gives you freedom to experiment. Buy three packets of spinach and test which one grows best in your garden. Try out those giant tomatoes and see if you like them. Buy a packet of popcorn and see if you like growing your own.
Personally, I like to do a little bit of both seed starting and purchased seedlings. Once you’ve determined which of the two methods you are going to use (or if you’re going to use a combination of both), you can then move on to deciding exactly what you’d like to grow.