By Jessica Kirby, Senior Editor of TheGreenGazette –
Whether to plants seeds or nurse seedlings—that is the question. As a non-commercial home gardener with boxes my husband made and a crapshoot of light and soil quality locations around my property, the gardening season is always an adventure. I try new things each year, along with my tried and tested favourites. My children pick out at least one new thing to plant and nourish and oversee the flower planters. I have conjured miserable fates for corn, patty pan squash, and even a no-brainer batch of strawberries, and I have consistent successes, some of which include around 50 lb of tomatoes each year, boxes of baby potatoes, a kitchen full of herbs, miles of lettuce and spinach, and mysterious garlic crops that are sometimes gorgeous, sometimes stolen by elves in the night. Most of these wonders I start from seed, but a choice few come straight from the nursery. Here is why:
There is a lot to be said for the satisfaction of preparing the medium, caring for the seed environment, and watching the “babies,” pop through the surface. All you need is a growing medium like starter soil or pellets, the seeds you love, and a suitable environment that promotes adequate light and heat. We don’t have a good, sunny window so I use propagation domes and lights to create a warm, ventilated environment. This is an exciting process that teaches my children valuable lessons about science, patience, and where their food comes from.
The variety of seeds available is mind-blowing. West Coast Seeds, my go-to brand, had something like nine types of spinach alone, all best suited for different seasons, resistant to different threats, and qualified by different shapes, textures, and colours.
You can’t beat the cost of seeds—even organic, non-GMO seeds, which cost a little more, are $3/pack and contain 24-500 seeds, depending on the variety. If you are interested, you can buy heirloom seeds and then save your own from your plants, so long as you harvest and save them properly. Most organic seed suppliers have heirloom varieties and Seedy Sunday events are another good source. And don’t forget seed swapping—you may not need 50 tomato seeds, but you could trade your neighbour for some of her 50 cucumber seeds and everyone wins.
Some would say the downside of growing from seed is time. It takes time to organize a starting schedule and give plant babies the daily care they need for a few weeks. Eventually they must be hardened off, which is also a daily commitment for a short spell that could end in disaster if you forget. There is an equipment investment up front—trays, soil or pellets, lights, domes, even a greenhouse or cold frame, though after year one much of this is reusable. All of this takes up space while in use and for storage in the off season.
The time saved by buying started seedlings is miraculous—one trip to Buckerfield’s in April and your garden is 65 per cent done. Bring those puppies home to pre-conditioned soil and you are set with no storage, little equipment, and 100 per cent confidence they’ve been hardened off and are ready for the ground. There is no thinking about the timing of when to start seeds or plant—if the plants are well-established and available for purchase, they are ready for the garden. The loss factor is reduced considerably—there is always some worry with seeds that they won’t spout or that they will easily succumb to an early death, but seedlings are more or less bullet proof, comparatively speaking. Don’t get me wrong: they still need love, care, nutrients, and thoughtful planting, but assuming these things are in place, you are laughing.
Of course, plants are far more expensive than seeds. Most garden centres will have limited varieties of vegetables and flowers, and only a few species of each. Be prepared for three or four choices of each variety and they probably won’t be the funky or heirloom types, so no black tomatoes or purple carrots, for example.
Most of the seedlings in garden centres are hybrid plants, which means you will not be able to save the seeds, unless they happen to be heirloom varieties. Keep in mind these plants will have been bred for hardiness and appearance, and in exchange flavour and nutrients are sacrificed. That doesn’t mean they won’t be delicious and nutritious, just that there is a bit of an exchange in the science of these plants.
The independence of being able to grow food from scratch is what draws me to start 90 per cent of my garden from seed. I will often pick up seedlings for my winter plants, since by August we are in full summer swing and I can’t commit to the attention and care babies need, but by fall I direct sow anything that can go in at that time. If speed, convenience, and guarantees inspire you in the garden, seedlings might be your best bet. But if you have the time and dedication, starting plants from seed is a lovely, rewarding adventure.