Live plants vs starting from seeds
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Whether a gardener chooses to start with seeds or live plants is as unique as their gardens. It comes down to the answer to some key questions.
Cost is often a major consideration when thinking about starting seeds. Those packets are extremely affordable with hundreds of seeds for close to the price of a single 4" nursery pot, but the expenses can add up quickly. I'll talk about those below.
For those of us working full time outside the home, time needs to factor into the decision as well. Seedlings will need attention and care for weeks before it's time for them to go into the soil. They'll also need to be hardened off, a process that requires increasing exposure to sunlight over a week or more. This can be tricky when we're not even home.
Here are the key questions I think gardeners should ask themselves before jumping into seed starting along with some of the things I've had to learn the hard way. In the end, the answer is as unique as the gardener.
Questions to ask before starting seeds:
Am I ready to take the next step in gardening?
A beginning gardener should always start with a small space and only a few plants, and I believe that should be purchased, live plants. There's a lot to learn about plant care, making it a wise choice to start with plants that are healthy and off to a good start. This allows the gardener to focus on caring for the plants, pests or diseases that might arise during the season versus having to start dealing with potential issues as soon as the seeds sprout.
How many plants do I need?
In a small space garden or urban/suburban garden, a gardener won't need as many plants so the question often comes down to how much seed starting supplies would cost when compared to purchasing plants.
Which is more cost-effective for my garden, seeds or plants?
Let's say it would take 6-10 vegetable plants to fill a garden space. In my area, 4" starts cost $3-$4. That means it would cost between $18-$40 to fill the garden. Just one of the grow lights recommended in my small space garden shelves post costs about $40. At this cost, it would take several years before coming close to breaking even on the investment in seed starting supplies.
Am I picky about the variety?
Wanting or needing varieties that aren't commonly available shoots a hole in all the thoughts above about cost-effectiveness. If the only way to get certain plants is to grow them, the argument is settled.
My gardening friends who start their own seeds introduced me to quite a few varieties of plants that I would never find in nurseries. This is what pushed me to finally make the investment in a grow kit.
Can I start seeds indoors?
Experts will tell you a grow cart or appropriate supplemental lighting is required, a window is not sufficient. I've always found this to be true.
Seeds will start in a window sill but will develop legginess and a variety of other issues that are likely to make the plant prone to illness or injury later.
For small space gardeners like me, a purchased grow cart probably has too large a footprint. I made one narrow enough to fit in front of a window. Grow lights are still necessary, even though it fits in front of a window, which is just a reference to understand the scale, not to forego lights.
Do I have a way to harden off seedlings before transplanting?
This one gets complicated for anyone who works full time. Hardening seedlings is a process where each day for at least a week, seedlings are exposed to more and more light.
Seedlings should receive one hour of direct sun the first day, two hours the second, and so on. It is complicated to provide this staggered exposure when working the traditional 8-5 schedule of many suburbanites.
I've gotten around it by placing moveable shelves on my east-facing patio. I can adjust their position daily to provide the appropriate amount of light. It's not foolproof and I've lost seedlings to windburn on the excessively windy days that Oklahoma is known for having simply because I wasn't home, but it is a solution that works for me.
If there isn't a workaround like the one I've developed, starting seeds could result in heartbreak. Failing to properly harden them means they'll be cooked by the sunlight, and likely killed on their first day in the garden.
I hope this helps in making the tricky decision to start seeds or purchase plants. Do you have a tip that has helped you overcome barriers to seed starting? Please share in the comments below.