Seeds vs. Transplants
Most gardeners plant a combination of seeds and transplants, choosing seeds for some veggies, and transplants, which are also called “starts” for others. Transplants and starts are essentially baby vegetable plants, usually sold in pots or packs of 4 or 6. Much of your own decision about seeds versus transplants will come down to personal preference. However, there is some wisdom shared by gardeners as to which works best for what.
Some things just don’t like to be transplanted. Snapdragons, nasturtiums, spinach, beets, carrots, and peas are examples of plants that like to start and finish in the same place, mostly due to having a delicate root system. Things that are quick to germinate are great to start from seed, like radishes, beans, peas, beets, and turnips.
Starting plants from seed allows you more choice in the variety that you grow. You can browse seed catalogs and choose from the infinite options, rather than being confined to growing whatever transplants your local farmer or garden center has to offer. Often, starting from seed can be more cost-effective, especially if you are growing something in significant quantity or plan to grow in succession.
Consider that direct sowing—planting seeds right into your garden soil—can be riskier than using transplants because those seeds have to contend with weather hazards (e.g., drought, flood, high wind) and weed pressure. Be sure you have a plan in place for giving your seeds the best chance possible.
Be prepared to thin your seedlings, which means pulling out a few plants as you go down the row to make sure your crop is spaced evenly. For example, you’ll want to make sure your beet seedlings are a rough 2–4 inches apart so that each plant has room to make an average-sized beet. Crowded plants compete for light, water, and nutrients. Also, lack of airflow will encourage diseases.
Veggies to Direct Seed
Starting with baby plants can give you more control and predictable results in the garden. Transplants give you a huge jumpstart on the season because they will mature sooner and give you an earlier harvest. You can also increase your harvest with succession planting—planting the same thing several times per season to ensure continuous harvest. For example, you can start your first lettuce succession via transplants and then directly sow lettuce seeds every 2–3 weeks into your garden.
Transplants can be more resistant to insect and other pest pressure because they are more mature and stronger when you first put them into your garden. Many insect pests just love teeny tiny seedlings. Skipping that stage all together and using transplants can save some veggie loss. However, consider that transplants can introduce weeds and diseases into your garden. Most producers of transplants are very careful about this, especially with respect to diseases, but it is not uncommon to get a little grass or other weed seed into your transplant pack now and then. You can pull weed seedlings out before planting, if you find an unwanted straggler in your pack of veggie starts.
Be sure to harden off your transplants, which means exposing them to slightly cooler temps and some dryer conditions before putting them out into your garden. Most transplants have been raised in extremely controlled environments (greenhouses), under very warm, favorable temperatures.They’ve also been spoiled with plenty of water. If you set them right out into your garden, they may suffer from transplant shock, which is wilting (or sometimes death) due to the sudden surprise of cooler night temperatures, lots of temperature fluctuation, or drier conditions.
Buying transplants can be more cost effective, and provides you with a great way to support local farmers and garden centers. Interested in starting your own transplants? Read our Ask Ruth: Starting Your Own Transplants from Seed article and our Homemade Soil Block Recipe article. Soil blocks are pot-less soil cubes for starting seeds in which allow plant roots to air-prune, avoiding plant stress.
Veggies to Transplant or Start in Trays