Where to Start? Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting

Spring is just around the corner! It’s hard to believe, but in just a few short weeks, it will be planting time. Have you thought about how you plan to start your garden this year? Here are some tips for choosing between Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting, including a run-down of the pros and cons for each option, with a handy flow chart to help you make your decision.

 

Nursery Transplants

Pros: 

    • Least amount of work. The nursery has done the hard work for you! You don’t have to deal with planting schedules, germination fails, and plants keeling over/getting leggy because they don’t have sufficient lighting (no, putting your plants in a windowsill is NOT enough light for baby seedlings… you need a fluorescent or special spectrum LED light to mimic the sun – I’ve learned this the hard way in growing the world’s floppiest tomatoes)
    • No waste! Did you really need 45 lettuce seedlings? That’s what you’re going to have when you sow indoors (lettuce seeds are TINY, betcha can’t plant just one!). Have you thought about how they will fit once they are full-size? At proper spacing (4 per foot in the Square Foot Gardening method), you’d need 11 square feet (close to three-quarters of a 4×4 ft bed) to plant all those lettuces. And I’m guessing you probably wanted to eat more than just lettuce this year. Plus, if you’re like me, you hear Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of the Angels” every time you have to cull a perfectly good seedling because there is no room in the inn.

I have to make fun of it': Sarah McLachlan on the intense power of Angel, the unofficial song of sorrow | CBC Radio

    • Simple transplanting. Pop them out of their containers, dig a hole in the ground, and pop them in. Voila! You have plants!
    • Supporting a local business. After last year, we should all be supporting these entrepreneurs as much as possible. PREACH.

Cons:

    • Fewer variety options. You probably can’t get that super specific Russian tomato that you’ve been eyeing in the seed catalogs at the nursery. BUT the nursery will have at least 12 other varieties you can try that probably aren’t all that different. 
    • Slightly higher cost than seeds. But realistically people, it’s less than a latte. If you’re really nickel and diming it, get seed packets, but keep in mind that 4- or 6-packs of veggies or herbs at the nursery are usually only a couple bucks. Your sanity and time ARE worth something. Better yet, split that cost with a neighbor who only wants 1 or 2 plants. Now you have a neighbor with the same plants in case your plants fail. And you get to know your neighbor. Win-win.
    • Transplant shock is possible. You need to acclimate your nursery plants to their new home by leaving them outside for gradually longer amounts of time each day (over the course of about a week). If planted out immediately into new surroundings without this acclimatization, Your plants might not survive. 

 

Direct Sowing

Pros:

    • Strong plants. Plenty of sunlight and wind ensure your plants don’t end up leggy and weak.
    • No transplant shock because there is no transplanting! This happens if you don’t acclimate your plants to their final planting location (usually nursery plants need to be set outside for progressively longer periods each day for about a week before you intend to plant)
    • Low cost & low waste. You don’t have to buy potting soil or seed-starting mix.
    • Wide variety of seeds available
    • Some varieties must be direct sown to avoid root damage that would occur if transplanted. These include root vegetables like beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, and radishes. Other types of plants that don’t transplant well are beans, peas, squashes, cucumbers, melons, and corn. 

Cons:

    • Some babysitting required. You need to keep on top of watering so seedlings don’t dry out.
    • Uneven spacing in your beds is a thing. You aren’t going to have Martha Stewart picture perfect photo spreads of your garden. It’s going to look a little higgledy-piggledy. 
    • Thinning required. You have to pull/snip baby plants that are too close together. Cue the sad violin. (OR look at the bright side and enjoy some homegrown microgreens!)
    • Not appropriate for slow growers. Look at the “days to maturity” on your seed pack. If it’s longer than your growing season is (days between your average last and first frost dates), then you’ll need to start with transplants or by starting indoors.

 

Indoor Seed Starting

Pros

  • Wide variety of seeds available. You can grow any variety you want! As long as you can source the seed packet, you can make it happen
  • You have complete control over the growing process
  • Satisfaction/bragging rights of having grown your own plants from seed to harvest
  • You can observe and learn a lot about plant growth – nutrient needs, wind
  • Get a head start on plant growth (can start plants inside when it’s too cold to start them outdoors) – earlier harvests, potentially more rounds of succession planting

Cons

  • Requires expensive equipment to do it right, including seedling heat mats, domed trays or soil blockers, fans, LED/fluorescent lights, bakers racks, plus the actual seeds. This is easily a few hundred dollars in start-up costs. This method won’t pay for itself unless you’re using it for many, many growing seasons or planning to sell your seedlings
  • Wastes a lot of potting soil/seed starting mix. I see this as an unnecessary extra expense.
  • Plants must be hardened off before transplanting into the garden. This means acclimatizing seedlings like you would transplants from a nursery (gradually more time outdoors each day over the course of a week).
  • Dampening off / other fungal infections more likely indoors.
  • It’s a much bigger time commitment than transplanting or direct sowing. With great power comes great responsibility – you will be babysitting these plants, tending to water, heat, and light until it’s time to plant out. 

Here’s a summary of the points above:Plant Starting Pros & Cons Chart

Still not sure what to do? Use this decision guide!

Plant Starting Decision Guide

What are your thoughts on choosing between Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting? Are there criteria I missed that you think should be included in deciding? What did you decide? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: How to Achieve Your Goals This Year + My Goals for 2021

Next Wednesday: Step-by-Step Planting Preparation Guide

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