Starting Your Garden: Seed or Transplants?

The sheer multitude of garden plants, the vast differences in growth requirements, and challenges of geographical regions make it impossible to state one is universally better than another. Since we can’t 100% say if seed or transplants are better, we will avoid making a broad trowel statement (non-gardeners’ might say broad brush).

Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both.


What are critical questions when using seed rather than transplants (aka young plants typically in cell-paks or small pots)?

Is the seed source trustworthy, with seed packets properly labeled?

Imagine planting and diligently caring for seeds you understood were Sweet Banana Peppers. After three months of tedious weeding and watering, you harvest your reward. With the long-awaited crunching bite your tender mouth is quickly inflamed with acidic juices of the look-alike Hungarian Wax Pepper. Fine for Hungarians, but even they would agree it wasn’t fair. Or seed shared from a friend; were they stored properly, did they require cold treatment, and where did they really come from? Recalling foggy college days of the ’80s when mysterious seeds were found in a buddy’s old van. Being the hort student, I was asked to plant and grow the seeds for positive identification; consider it a “scientific experiment” they’d say. Seeds germinated and plants grew to resemble a weed-like hemp. I had no idea my friends were into twining rope or weaving textiles, nevertheless, they were thrilled.  

Is the seed from an open-pollinated, natural or straight species, or from a plant developed as a hybrid? Seeds from the natural species are most likely to produce plants that resemble the parent plant. Collect seeds from native Purple Coneflowers found in the wild and you should get more Purple Coneflowers. 

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Hand planting seeds
Roger Spooner/Getty Images

Hybrid plants are carefully bred to produce specific characteristics: such as larger flowers or purple berries or sweeter fruit. Usually, there is no intention of using seed collected from a hybrid plant for reproduction. Why? – Most hybrids will not produce similar offspring. Many have sterile seed and if viable might produce a range of undesirable qualities such as thorns, low-quality flower or fruit and are often disease-prone. A typical example would be to plant seeds from a Red Delicious apple variety. Eventually, you could get a nasty, gnarly thorny crabapple with fruit that only a skunk would eat. That would only occur after the skunk ate some of the hemp-like weeds mentioned earlier.

There is much to be learned when starting from seed regarding proper lighting, sowing in soil appropriate for germination, predicting the ideal time to sow to have plants ready for transplanting, maintaining sufficient fertility and airflow, monitoring humidity levels and guarding against disease.

Seed propagation has its merits, especially for specific plants and reasons. To find which plants grow well from seed look at those traditional flowers and vegetables that have a history of seed propagation. Heirloom plants and their seeds are worth the effort. You will be rewarded with delicious flavors no longer found in fruits and vegetables in grocery stores. There is also personal satisfaction in starting with seed from the beginning and carefully nurturing a seedling along into a mature plant. On a much larger scale consider an acorn from an oak. The small oval seed that you can hold in your hand contains the genetic potential to become a White Oak tree, one of the largest living organisms on earth at 100 feet high and 200 feet wide, is truly amazing. 

Transplants (or young plants):

The merits of transplants are numerous and it won’t be difficult to detect my bias. Young transplants are jump-started and ready to go.

Professional horticulturists have overcome the risks and challenges previously listed in growing from seed and produced a young plant ready to plug into your flower bed or garden. Most plants are the result of strategic hybridization resulting in amazing flowers and fruit or disease resistance. Growers carefully watch the calendar and target dates, which they have found to be most effective for the plant to be available to the public to ensure successful transplant at their home

Transplanting a young plant

In the north, we like to start our little seedlings indoors and early; when conditions outside can still be cold and gray. It is an act of defiance of course. Despite the plant-killing weather outside, we defy the last hold of winter and begin our garden indoors. Unless you are equipped with proper grow-lights, plants stretch and bend to the sun or light. Tall, leggy plants with thin, flimsy white stems are not prepared for the coming transplant to the harsh world outdoors in the garden. When spring finally arrives, you install your skinny little plants. Unfortunately, hopes of future harvest plummet as a gentle breeze snaps their frail bodies and they flop over, whimper, gasp and die.

With memories like that, I skip the dramatic antics and go with sturdy little plants prepared and ready for installation into the real world.

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Lettuce seedlings planted in rows

-Rob McCartney, Horticulturist

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