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Seeds or Transplants, Which is Better?

Mature organic broccoli seedlings for planting in the garden Mature organic broccoli seedlings for planting in the garden

Seeds or Transplants, Which is Better?

There are several factors that you need to consider when deciding whether to sow your seeds directly in your garden or to use transplants. Price, time, and space are the main issues that come into play. Each gardener needs to make the decision that works best for him or her; there is no right or wrong.

Buying Seeds vs. Seedling Starts

Seeds are the least expensive route to go. Seeds in general cost $2-4 per packet and contain anywhere from 10-2000 seeds. Depending on your garden size, you may find you don't use them all. Even if you only use half the packet, the cost per plant is minimal.

The main benefit to buying your own seeds is you have complete control over what you are getting. You can choose the specific variety, or 10 varieties, of tomato you want. If you are seeking a diversity of vegetables, or seeking a specific variation, this is the way to go.

Buying seedlings from your local farm store or farmer's market can cost you $2-10 per plant. Getting plants that have already been started by someone else can be beneficial time-wise for you and for many, worth the higher investment.

However, going this route relinquishes a lot of control over what you are going to be growing. You can only buy what the seller is offering. If you were looking forward to a specific type of pepper, you may find it unavailable in a seedling start and have to choose another or do without. If you aren't holding out for a specific variety, then this route is a good, easy option.

Starting from Seed, Inside or Outside?

Sowing your seeds right into your garden is by far the easiest way to plant. There is some effort needed to make shallow trenches to plant the seeds, however even if you start your seeds indoors, you will have to do this step.

The main consideration when deciding whether to start your seeds inside or outside comes down to the individual vegetables and where you live.

If you live in a temperate climate, you will have a longer growing season and not have to worry about the plants having enough time to grow to maturity. Folks who live in a place with a short growing season, like the northeast, have to plan a bit more and make sure all their plants have adequate time to reach maturity. This often means starting seeds inside several weeks before the last anticipated frost, therefore extending their growing season.

For those who are dealing with a short growing season, each vegetable you want to grow needs to be assessed individually to figure out if it can wait until the ground is ready or whether it needs a head-start. If starting seedlings indoors is not an option, then only those vegetables with a shorter growing season should be chosen.

Vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, melons and winter squash demand a longer grow time and all need to be started indoors if you have a limited growing season.

Planting outdoors also increases your chances of seed loss because of inclement weather or hungry critters. Lots of rain can wash the seeds away or cause them to rot; too much sun can dry the seeds out so much they don't even start growing; and there is always the chance a hungry pest will take off with the seeds.

Starting Seedlings Outdoors

Planting your seeds directly into your garden is as straight forward as it sounds. Each packet of seeds lists on it how deep to sow the seeds, what the spacing should be, and how many days until the plants maturity. Follow the instructions for each individual seed packet. In general, sowing your seeds directly into the garden will take a few hours or a day and will involve you lightly digging into the dirt to place the seeds and then covering them back up.

Starting Seedlings Indoors

Before you decide to plant indoors, you need to evaluate the space you have available. The seeds need to be nurtured by frequent watering and lots of direct sun. You will need a space in front of a sunny, south-facing, window. Seeds do best with about 8-12 hours of sunlight per day. Depending on the vegetable, seeds will take 4-21 days to germinate and then they need to grow hearty enough to be transplanted outside. A good rule of thumb is to plant indoors 6 weeks before the last frost.

After you have found your space to keep the seedlings, the next step is to get all the supplies to start your planting. You will need potting soil, planting containers, space markers to write down what you planted (it's amazing how fast it can get confused 6 weeks later!), and a watering can.

Before you begin the actual planting, go through all your seed packets and make a note of the weeks growth needed before being planted outside. Seeds that need to be sowed indoors will indicate so on their packet. You may also choose to start some indoors that don't necessarily need to be done. Reasons for this may be to give them a head start so you have a longer production or because you are dealing with less than ideal soil and the plants will greatly benefit from a strong beginning.

After you've planted your seed starts, you will need to check on them every day. They will need daily watering and should be given a ¼ turn each day to keep them from reaching to much towards sun and getting weak, long, leggy stems

When they are strong enough to go outside, showing three leaves for most plants, they will need to be slowly acclimated to outside weather. This is done by setting them outside in their planters in increments. Best practice is to do it over three days, placing them outside in the sun for just a morning the first day, then adding more hours in the sun as the days go on, until they are strong enough to be transplanted.

Whichever method you choose, before you plant anything outside, make sure you check here to find the optimal time based on your area.


University of Minnesota Extension, Starting Seeds Indoors

Clemson Cooperative Extension, Starting Seeds Indoors