When you make the decision to start growing your own vegetables, you are confronted with two options: Seeds or seedlings. You could buy some seedling plants or buy some seeds to plant yourself. Which one should you choose?
Growing your own vegetables has many benefits. Not only do you get healthy fresh produce to harvest and eat, but there are other health benefits as well.
Growing anything yourself can be overwhelming. Not only do you need to choose what vegetables to grow, but you also have to choose whether you start from seed or buy seedlings at a nursery or garden centre.
What are the pros and cons of each and which one is better in the long run? Let’s compare based on some criteria and see if we can find which one is better.
Note that this post loosely applies to flowers as well and fruit that can reasonably grown from seed.
A package of seeds costs just a few dollars. Usually there will be enough seeds for at least a full year of seeding and sometimes even several years. Even better if you can save seeds from the current year to use in future years. Essentially then you have zero cost in terms of seeds at least.
You do have to add on the cost of some seeding supplies. You will need pots or seeding flats, soil, water, fertlizer and a heating mat if you are sprouting heat-loving seeds in early spring.
Usually these seeding supplies will cost under $20 but it really will depend on how much seeding you will be doing. And in some cases you can save money by using recyclables you find at home. Check out how to save money in your vegetable garden for more information.
In contrast if you buy seedlings, one six-pack (no, not that kind!) will probably run you $5 or so. You may need more than one pack and you will likely have several different types of plants to buy. This can get quite expensive very quickly and you might not even realize how much you are buying until you reach the cashier in the nursery or garden centre!
You will probably not need pots, seeding flats or soil. However you will still need water and fertilizer.
Seeds or seedlings in terms of cost? From my experience it is seeds, if you don’t count your time. More on that in the next section.
Seeds take time to plant, nurture and transplant into the garden. You can find a few shortcuts, but it still takes more time than just watering and feeding seedlings that you buy.
Mind you, going to the nursery or garden centre also takes time if you are not going there while running other errands. I would recommend going at the quieter times so that you don’t have to stand in line. Have a list of all of the plants you intend to buy and have some alternatives if the particular variety of vegetable is not available.
You may value your time to the extent that if is takes you away from other tasks that could be making money, you have to factor that into cost. I however consider my time seeding a learning experience for my daughter and a relaxing and enjoyable task, so I don’t count my time in terms of cost.
Also some seeds take ridiculously long to grow into plants that will produce fruit or vegetables. Asparagus for instance takes at least 3 years from seed. If you buy one year old crowns instead (basically seeds that have been sprouted and grown into plants), you can expect to harvest asparagus in the second year.
Seeds or seedlings in terms of time? Definitely buying seedlings where a lot of the time spent sprouting and tending to seeds is already done for you.
Seeds are available from many seed companies. You have such great variety by shopping around and you can get almost any vegetable including some very rare or exotic varieties. If you save your own seeds, then you will have seeds available whenever you want to seed.
You’re going to be able to grow a wider variety of vegetables and find something you and your family will like to eat, rather than be stuck with what is available as seedlings.
Seeds can be stored in the fridge for a few years. You can pull them out at anytime and seed some in a pot. Feel like growing some lettuce in winter time in a greenhouse under lights? Just pull out your seed packet and plant.
Seedling varieties are not as prevalent. You will likely find the common, everday varieties but good luck finding some of the more unique varieties. Usually mail order is not available due to the difficulting of shipping live plants and the cross-border and international restrictions (the latter can also affect seed shipments but to a lesser extent).
You also have to be quick when seedlings first become available in nurseries. The popular varieties may sell out quickly and if you snooze, you lose. Seeds can sell out too, but those you can either buy ahead of time or get from an online supplier that still has stock.
Seedlings are only available at certain times of the year, usually spring and fall. Nurseries make seedlings available when the majority of growers are ready to start. If you are a greenhouse grower or simply want to start earlier, you may not be able to buy any seedlings. And so you have to wait, which most gardeners find hard to do when the planting bug strikes early in the spring.
Seeds or seedlings in terms of availability? Seeds definitely win here in terms of varieties that are available and having them on hand when you need them.
There are certain issues with genetically modified organisms (GMO) that are grown from GMO seeds. Not everyone agrees that these issues are real, so there is some debate about this. I may do a post on this controversional topic one day but for now I’ll just state my opinion and let you do research to form your own opinion.
My opinion is that, as a home gardener, you should avoid GMO seeds and seedlings grown from GMO seeds whenever you can and stick with non-GMO. We really don’t know the long-term affects of GMO seeds as they have been around for only a relatively short time.
With seeds you usually will receive some guarantee that they are non-GMO and it is relatively easy to obtain info on the heritage of the seeds. You can talk to the seed company if it is not clear. You also have choices in that you can choose a seed company that provides this information and guarantees their seeds to be non-GMO.
With seedlings you may only know the variety name and not the origin of the seeds used to grow them. You could ask the nursery or garden centre staff, but they might also not know as they likely get at least some of the seedlings from suppliers. You would have to contact the suppliers and there is no guarantee that they will be willing to answer an end customer’s inquiries.
Seeds or seedlings in terms of source? Seeds definitely win. And if you save your own seeds, even better, as you know exactly where they are from.
Some vegetables simply survive better when seeded in place and not transplanted. A lot of root crops do not like being transplanted. And some root crops like carrots actually can attract pests just by transplanting since the pests can smell the carrot foliage as it is disturbed by your hands.
Nurseries are not at fault for selling these types of transplants. The general public wants the convenience of picking up a pack of carrot plants and plopping them into their garden. And you probably will be moderately successful, but if you want the best possible outcome, pick seeds.
Seeds do need more care. It is easy to forget to water or overwater and have seeds not germinate or have very young seedlings die from damping off disease. But that is also part of the challenge and satisfaction (more on that below) of planting seeds.
Seeds also will survive transportation much better and make great gifts for other gardeners, especially if you have to send them in the mail across the country.
Note: be careful about sending seeds internationally – this may be against a country’s import laws.
Seeds or seedlings in terms of survivability? Seeds are tough and will outlast any seedling. Afterall there are seed vaults where seeds are stored in temperature and humidity controlled environments to guarantee human survival in case of a major breakdown in food availability.
If you have kids, introducing them to gardening at an early age is crucial, in my opinion, to their health and well-being. It hopefully will make them more responsible adults that will take better care of the environment that their parents and grandparents have.
Planting seeds with your kids is a lot more educational for them, especially if you can show them where the seeds came from. They then get to see the lifecycle of a plant and its seeds: a plant grows from a seed and makes seeds itself that we then can plant again to make even more plants.
I’ve included a photo below from one of my earliest posts on this blog that ended up turning into a more in-depth article Seed Starting: The Definitive Guide For Beginners. She had fun, I got some help and while it took longer than if I had done the seeding myself, she gained a sense of accomplishment and learned something important.
It also set the stage for us to build her a garden planter box together and she had her first year growing vegetables in it, all seeded.
And another post covered How to Easily Make Seed Tape and Sheets, where again my daughter helped out and actually did a better job than me, placing the seeds on the flour paste glue dots.
Buying seedlings cuts off that part of the process and you will find it harder to explain to your kids how it all works. They will still see how to tend to plants, and feed and water them to keep them growing. But they do miss out on seeing those tiny seedlings poke through the soil and stretch to reach the light, sometimes just days after planting the seeds.
Seeds or seedlings in terms of education? Seeds are key to the education of children in understanding the full lifecycle of plants and the food they eat.
This is where seeds are ahead of seedlings by a mile. Nothing beats eating vegetables that you grew from seeds you planted and nutured through weeks and months of growth.
Yes, I have sometimes had to go and buy seedlings because of issues with my seeds. That’s part of gardening. Something doesn’t go right, so you find a solution and continue on. Learn from your failures and mistakes though, so that hopefully next time your seeds will succeed the first time.
Seeds or seedlings in terms of satisfaction? Successfully growing plants from seeds is the ultimate ego booster when it comes to gardening.
Look at how proud my daughter is in this photo showing off her first crop of carrots grown from seed. Sure, they’re small but it reinforced to her that she can grow her own food at home in her own garden planter box!
So which is better? In my opinion it is seeds, based on what I’ve written above. And that’s what I focus most of my planting on. Very rarely do I buy seedlings.
However in some instances seedlings will at least get you into gardening and being able to harvest fresh vegetables that you grew. That’s better than saying you are not going to grow anything because it is too hard or complicated. Once you have had a year or two of vegetable gardening, then you can branch out and try seeds.