Garden Planning 101

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Edibles with Ease When to Grow from Seeds or from Starts

Edibles with Ease: When to Get Growing from Seeds or from Starts?

By February, veteran food gardeners are sorting through seeds and setting up indoor kits to get their seasonal edibles growing. But, for others an interest in growing food may not mean a passion for coddling along everything from seed.

Luckily, gardening professionals will be cultivating a wide assortment of edibles into pre-grown starter plants that will be ready to pop right into the garden later in spring.

But, does it always make sense to buy a “start” rather than sow a seed?  

Seeds are relatively inexpensive. For a couple of bucks, you get a packet that may have the potential to turn into hundreds of tasty edible plants. While some plants are easy to cultivate from seed, others may be much more difficult and time-consuming to bring from seed to fruition. On the flip side, there are a number of crops that grow poorly if they aren’t sown into the spot where they will grow until harvest. As well, there are number of edibles that are rarely–if ever–grown from seed; instead, these are grown by cultivating new plants from the tissues of an existing plant – not something a typical home gardener will do.

So, what does this mean for your food garden?

Garden Plan 101 Bare root Strawberry planted in February

Strawberries, Rhubarb, asparagus, and cane berries: While it might be fun to try growing these from seed, save a few bucks and pick up bare-root options at your local nursery in late winter. These early season pre-grown plants will produce much more quickly than seed grown options, and by buying them “bare-root”, you’ll pay much less than you otherwise will later in spring when they’re sold in a plastic pot.

Fruit and nut trees: These are the crops you’re unlikely to ever grow from seed. Not only would it take many years to cultivate these from seed to fruit, but also the fruits that result from seed-grown trees and shrubs aren’t likely to be palatable.

Blueberries and other fruiting shrubs: Although you could opt to purchase many fruiting shrubs at bare root sales, choosing to drop a few more bucks on a more mature plant may mean you’re reaping harvests sooner rather than later. These woody plants are particularly slow growers.

Carrots, radishes and other roots: Growing these root crops from seed sown where they will grow all season makes the most sense. Radishes germinate and are ready to harvest within just a couple of weeks of being sown; disturbing their rapid growth via transplanting just doesn’t make sense. While carrots take longer, transplanting them can distort the growth of their delicious, long roots. Sowing and growing them in one place helps ensure uniform shape. Beets, however, perform well whether grown from direct-sown seed or carefully separated starts – just be sure to get them into the ground while the starts are still young.

Broccoli and other Brassicas: Cole crops like cabbage, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts,  and broccoli are relatively simple to grow from seed early and later transplant into the garden, but it generally means you need to sow seed indoors in late winter to plant outdoors later after several transplanting chores. Instead, take it easy on yourself and pick up a few starts at the nursery to pop right into your prepared beds in spring. But watch out, similar plants like Mustards mature fast, so harvest them early, before they go to seed.

Garden Planning 101 Harvesting fast-growing Ruby Streaks Mustard with Fiskars Multi-snip

Legumes: I laugh out loud when I see nurseries selling pea and bean starts. It’s almost impossible to keep these from growing from seed. Who didn’t grow a bean in a milk carton in grade school? Save yourself the nightmare of separating tender, entangled pea and bean shoots from containers, and simply plant these seeds into the soil during spring, summer, and fall.

Tomatoes: There’s a lot to be said for growing your own tomatoes from seed. But, it means starting your seeds early indoors and transplanting them more than once before they go into the garden to bear fruit. If you’re new to gardening, visit a local plant sale to shop for starts for your garden. This plant, and its relatives the peppers and eggplant, take kindly to being moved from pot to bed.

Melons, squash, and cucumber: The cucurbits are notoriously difficult to successfully transplant from starts. Their root system is particularly delicate; if you break it the wrong way, your plant may not die, but it will never thrive. Instead, wait until it is warm, and direct sow your seeds into the soil. They should pop up fast in late spring or summer.

Garden Planning 101 Mixed baby greens

Lettuce and spinach: Lettuce grows great both ways. Seeding thickly, and thinning baby greens to make way for luscious heads later is a great way to eat well from the garden for weeks and weeks. However, if you choose to pick up a packet of lettuce starts, be sure to separate them into individual plants in your garden. Spinach doesn’t take well to transplanting. Instead, seed it thickly and harvest the entire plants as they mature; otherwise, these greens are likely to form flower heads fast, which does your dinner table no good at all.

Onions and garlic: Although you will see advertisements for “seed garlic”, the reality is, this “seed” is really a garlic clove, which is ideally planted in fall. If you purchase garlic “starts” in spring, its unlikely these plants will form fat, garlic bulbs to store. Onions, on the other hand, grow well from seed, but if you’re starting in spring, you’ll do well to pick up a bundle from the nursery’s bare root sale.

For more information about cultivating your garden from seed all through the year, take a look through our “Seed Series" starting with Crops to Seed Directly in the Soil.