Seed Starting 101: When You Didn’t Quite Get To It – Quality Nursery Seedlings

You may be looking around the gardening web right about now thinking to yourself, “Oh, shit. Was I supposed to start a bunch of seeds last month? Is it time to be transplanting my seedlings out?”

Well, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, as I do, congratulations! Your procrastination has totally paid off. Our spring is running about about a month and 10-degrees behind schedule, so go ahead and just do whatever you were supposed to do in March and early April now. Tell people you aren’t behind in the garden at all, you were just extremely prescient in judging the weather.

Now, if your weather is being more cooperative, or you’re having one of those, “No fiddly seed stuff this year!” moments, there is another way.

I’m talking about buying starts.

Some of the self-sufficiency purists out there might be a bit horrified, but here’s the thing: a well-grown nursery transplant beats a poorly-grown DIY transplant every single time. So if you assess your time, space, knowledge and dedication to raising your own transplants and come to the conclusion that you just aren’t there yet, buy the suckers. You can still be a “real” gardener with store-bought veg starts.

When figuring out the best path for your garden, it helps to understand why many advanced gardeners prefer starting their own from seed. The main reasons are price at scale, varietal availability and early care of the transplant.

Price: It is much, much cheaper to start your own transplants from seed if you are growing in quantity. I have something like 24 gallon-sized tomatoes going right now. That would be…I don’t know…maybe a hundred bucks worth of tomatoes at a nursery. Maybe more. But if you grow on a small scale, and you are only growing one or two tomatoes, it might actually be more cost effective to buy transplants than to invest in the seed, the potting mix, the containers, the florescent lights, etc. that are required to start heat-lovers inside.

Varietals: You are able to get exactly what you want with seed. Looking for an open-pollinated short-season indeterminate tomato with good late blight resistance, a balanced acid to sugar flavor profile and good suitability for drying or canning? (Hey, who isn’t?!) You are picky, you need to start with seeds. Looking for a tomato that will taste good on summer salads and ripen in your climate? Well, a good transplant from a reputable nursery will probably do the trick just fine, then.

Early Care: Like children, plants can be scarred in early life and not show the signs of their trauma until later. A cauliflower that experiences the trauma of a hard wilt will probably not go on to make a beautiful harvestable head. It will probably “button,” or make a tiny unusable head. When you are selecting transplants, you cannot necessarily tell which seedlings were forgotten and underwatered for a few days. There might be early-seedling trauma hidden behind Miracle-Gro lushness. When you grow your own, you know when you mess up and don’t water the cauliflower. You know before you invest the several months and many square feet per plant that it takes to grow a head. With store-bought seedlings, you often just can’t tell. Buying your transplants from a good nursery mitigates some of this risk.

So let’s say you assess the costs and benefits of buying transplants, and it makes sense for you. Or perhaps, as has happened to me, your lovingly hand-raised tomato transplants are caught out in a late freeze and you have no choice but to buy transplants. Now your goal is to find a source for climatologically well-adapted varietals that have been ethically and attentively raised.

You will not find them at Home Depot. It just ain’t happening.

You will find strong transplants at local nurseries that contract with local growers. A good grower of seedlings will not grow their plants too warm. If they do, the plants will suffer more shock when transplanted out. It takes more time for a seedling to reach marketable size when grown a bit cooler, so it may cost a few cents more, but those seedlings will be much more likely to turn into a successful plant in your garden.

A good nursery will know what transplants will do well in what climate, and will care for the transplants well so they do not suffer unnecessary stress. The employees of your ideal nursery will be veggie gardeners themselves and will be able to speak with authority about varietals, ripening time and flavor.

When you have found a good nursery, some plants will still be better candidates for adoption than others. You are looking for a seedling that is stocky and balanced.

Stocky: You want seedlings to be and stocky and hearty not tall and thin and leggy. No supermodel seedlings. A good thick stem that is slightly darker in color compared to other seedlings is good. A lighter colored, whippy, really flexible looking stem is not good. In general, younger plants adapt better to transplanting than more established plants, so it often makes more sense to buy 4″ starts than gallon starts. It’s also cheaper.

Balanced: A plant has to balance its top (leaf mass) and bottom (root mass). If a seedling has been pushed to grow too much leaf, too fast it will suffer shock when planted out because it’s root mass can’t adequately support it’s top without constant applications of liquid fertilizer.

You want the roots on your seedlings to be just filling out the pot. A loose roadmap of white roots evenly throughout the potting mix is ideal. Lots of roots curling around the bottom of the pot is a bad sign. No roots showing at all will make for a seedling that is very hard to transplant – the soil will just fall away from the plant.

You can tell what the roots of your plant look like by discretely sliding your seedling partially out of its pot in the nursery. You can see how to safely handle a seedling to check the root ball in my earlier post, Up-Potting.

If you buy well-grown, stocky and balanced vegetable starts from a good nursery that’s dedicated to helping vegetable gardeners, you should have every bit as much success as those who raise their own.

Let’s hear it for all our local, excellent nurseries that cater to edibles gardeners. I’m partial to Sky Nursery in Shoreline, WA. They carry a great selection of well-grown veggie starts and have a staff that really knows what they are talking about. What is your favorite nursery, where is it located and why do you love it?


  1. says

    After repeated fails with broccoli and bell pepper seeds, I now head to my local nursery. The two sisters at my local greenhouse walked me through perfect broc and pepper growing. I could start those seeds because of their help, but prefer to pay back the help by continued plant purchases.
    (Definitely not the PNW! It's Lakeside Greenhouse in Newell, WV).

  2. says

    I'll just plant late when I forget something. I've got seed, so I'll use it over paying for some hopped up nursary start. Gardening is a constant learning experience, so I'd just know better next time.

  3. says

    I've been getting lots of seedlings from my local Farmer's Market. I don't know if this is a universal option, but around here (Durham, NC) lots of small farmers sell some transplants this time of year before they really have much produce to offer. I've seen a few sad, leggy looking plants for sale, but mostly they are better looking, and cheaper, than the seedlings at the big box stores. The selection isn't bad either. You won't find anything really exotic, but I probably saw at least a dozen heirloom tomato varieties last weekend in addition to all the most common hybrids.

  4. says

    In southern Oregon, my favorite place is the Grange Co-op. They know their stuff and the plants are hardened off in our not-so-typical PNW climate. Success every time! I have no patience for seed, I want to see it and get a move on! Maybe one day when I get organized and have a spot to do starts, but for now at least I'm keeping the economy moving???

  5. says

    We don't do seed except for what can be direct sowed. Never start inside. We have a really good family-owned greenhouse for annuals, perennials and vegetables. Have always had good luck. They also only stock appropriate for the area and what customers want. We just got 6 1/2 " of snow yesterday. Memorial Day is traditionally the beginning of the outdoor planting season here.

  6. says

    Pests and diseases… in particular not introducing more into your garden.

    If things happen and you have to start over or run out of time.. you do what you must. Just most "store" situations are always battling an assortment of pests and diseases, and nursery & big box stores are the primary venue in which new issues to the area are introduced. (Example.. the blight that raced up and down the eastern coast nailing tomatoes and nightshade relatives.)

    Although.. I have to admit.. as much as I try to keep from purchasing transplants from stores.. I am a total sucker for garden club sales and the small farmer's market offerings.

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