A year or two ago, I remember having my mom ask me why I was starting from seeds rather than buying started plants. My initial answer was because I enjoy it, but there are so many reasons I choose to start seeds. Despite only having a small urban balcony and now a raised bed in a community garden, I start from seed rather than from pre-started plants. Scale or cost are not my main motivators, though they help. My hope is that this post will help explain why it is better, even for small space gardeners, to start from seed.
Starts from seed rather than buying started plants from your local big-box store has many advantages including, but not limited to:
- Backup seedlings
- Health of plants
- More variety options
- Varieties acclimated for your growing conditions
- And it is fun
While cost can vary depending on where you source plants and seeds, seeds will almost always be cheaper than pre-started plants or seedlings. If you purchase plants at a big-box store like Home Depot or Lowes, you will find national brands that have economy scale, so their prices will be cheaper than a local nursery starting smaller batches of plant starts. A six-count trays of starts will be cheaper than gallon-sized pots of tomato plants, but on average you will find pre-started plant for $3-12 depending on the variety and size of the plant.
Vegetable and flower seeds can be found in a variety of sources which may slightly affect their price tag. There are large national brands that can be found in anywhere from the Dollar Store to Walmart and Home Depot. Typically, these seed packs range from $1-3 dollars and will contain 20-200 seeds, so the equivalent of 20-200 plants. There are Heirloom companies who focus on selling seeds with lineage that dates back more than a hundred years, like Baker Creek Seeds, who’s seed packets range from $3-6 each. Then there are smaller seed companies around the United State that sell seed from plants that are adapted to your region, which will grown hardy plants based on tolerance to your temperatures and rain or lack thereof.
Now, I have been guilty of buying too many seed packets, so overbuying can cut down on savings, but looking at the basic math of say a packet of Sun Gold Tomatoes. A single packet contains 25 seeds and will cost you about $3. I started and grew 2 tomato plants which would have together cost me at least $4-8 each to buy as started plants. That seed packet has paid for itself, and I have seeds to share or save for next year (seed do not expire as long as kept dry).
If you are purchasing started plants, you probably will only buy the number of plants that you have room to grown on to full maturity. But starting from seeds gives you to option for backups in case something happens. In some cases, gardeners start two seeds per hole when starting plants and pinch off (or kill) the weaker of the two as they grow. This method helps insure you have a plant that will sprout, and gardens hope it will be stronger at producing if it had up front vigor. In other cases, gardeners start a few extra cells or pots of plants, to have backups should some die due to conditions out of your control or gardener error (gardening is all about learning as you go). So, by starting from seed, it gives you a backup plan, in a cheap manner, that you will be able to grow what you originally planned no matter what curveball comes.
Health of the Plants
Have you ever purchased a plant only to bring it home and have suddenly die? Plants started from big-box stores are started in large industrial sized greenhouses. Under climate-controlled and possible artificial light, the plants are brought up under idealized conditions. Once you bring those plants home, they experience temperature fluctuations as well as experience wind and weather which they have been shielded from. The sudden change can cause a plant to go into shock. By starting plants, yourself, you have the opportunity to slowly acclimate them to your growing conditions preventing them from going into shock. The term for this is hardening off. You do this by either slowly bringing plants that have been started inside out into the full sun and heat, or by starting seeds in the ground so plants are automatically acclimated to your environment.
Seasonality for Your Area
I learned this one the hard way. I spent three years living in hot sunny Orlando, Florida. That first summer I purchased a few tomato plants from our local Home Depot and Lowes. Little did I know, that though they did seem to cater to the area by selling palm trees and bougainvillea, which only grow in subtropical and tropical areas, the vegetable plants and seed packet displays were not set up on a regional calendar. Corporate standard was to put them out in the spring as things warmed up and replace them with Christmas trees and décor but October.
All summer long, I watered and loved on those tomato plants. They grew taller and produced flowers, but never seemed to set fruit. It was not until August after school had started back that I finally spent a few hours online trying to figure out what I had done wrong. I learned almost all tomato varieties need nighttime temperature of 75 degrees or cooler to set fruit. From mid-May through early-October nighttime temperatures were well over that in Orlando, yet the big box stores were still trying to sell unknowing costumers like me tomato starts…
In order to get a good production out of tomato plant, I would have needed to purchase the tomato seedlings in late-September or early-October, but that is when Lowes was cleaning out their gardening areas and preparing for cooler times with not a tomato plant in sight.
Wider Variety of Options
Growing vegetables at home takes time and care. And if you have ever grown even a house plant, you will know that sometimes plants do not make it. For me, it is discouraging to try and grow the same varieties of vegetables you can purchase in the store for pennies because of the industrialized farming and shipping system. There is more value in growing varieties that have a slightly different color, flavor, or are not available at the store.
If you walk into the gardening section at the home improvement store you might find two islands of tomato plants, but upon closer inspections you will realize that they are only carrying 4 or 5 varieties (a large slices, a Roma, and a few smaller cherry types). The visual illusion of more variety comes from the fact that they will have plants of a few different sizes (aka age) for sale of the same variety based on how much customers what to spend. Then compare that to the varieties available through seed supplier like Baker Creek Seeds who have so many tomato varieties that on their seed categories homepage they break up their tomatoes in 7-subcategories to help you search through the more than a hundred options!
Starting from seeds help you cater to your taste with that wider variety of options. Do you like eating cucumber raw? Then seek out a burp-free variety. Or do you plan on making pickles? Select a cucumber the size you wish to pickle. You don’t have to settle for the one option at the store.
Varieties Acclimated to Your Area
Taking variety choice one step future. The big-box stores with their limited varieties, will be selling those same varieties across the country. By purchasing seeds grown in your region, you will be able to get plants that are better adapted. There are many smaller seed companies producing seeds for say the Southeast, Midwest, or for California. Seek them out and your plants will grow strong, produce more, and handle surviving with your temperatures.
Starting Seeds Because it is Fun
There is something magical about the fact that something so tiny contains all the genetic martial and energy needed to start growing a large plant. Starting plants from seed allows you to witness the entire magical process. From those first baby leaves to finally harvesting of the fruits of your labor, starting from seed somehow makes the process more special because you witness it from start to finish.
Not to mention you cut out all of those single-use plastic pots. So starting seeds can be plastic free depending on what you use to start your seeds.