So, it’s the time of year out here in the Maritime Northwest where periodic nice days start to happen. A few legitimately sunny Spring days in Seattle send thoughts to the veggie patch, and gardeners everywhere start running to buy plant starts.
This can become a caveat emptor situation pretty fast, because baby plants are, in the best of circumstances, delicate and fragile things. In poorer circumstances, you’d be better served taking $4 and burning it than buying a crappy veg start, because then at least you would only be wasting your money, not your money and your time.
Because let’s face it: you are buying starts to save time. You are either jump-starting the season (saving time in ground) or delegating the task of raising your own transplants (saving time beforehand).
So the last thing you want is for the extra money you are spending on starts as compared to seed to not save you time – either because the start itself fails or because the plant is a poor choice to transplant anyway.
Here’s a few key things to remember when you are surrounded (and possibly overwhelmed) by the seedling display.
First Things First: Location, Location, Location
Look around. Do you see something like this?
If you are at a local nursery with a large enough selection of vegetable starts to have an organic option, you are in a good place.
This place should also have helpful, passionate experts who can answer your questions. It should be dedicated to keeping locally grown and raised plant starts in good condition until they are purchased. This means the store pays staff to water and tend to the seedlings, and if that means your starts are a buck more expensive than at Home Depot, you suck it up and pay the extra buck.
I have said it before and I’ll repeat myself: do not buy your vegetable starts at the Big Orange Box or the Big Blue Box. You may buy your perennial shrubs and drip irrigation supplies and raised-bed timber at the chain hardware stores if you want, but please not veggies.
Sometimes the extra money for starts vs. seeds just flat is not worth it.
Someone is banking – literally – on your ignorance here. That’s $4 for a 4-inch pot of nasturtiums. In the Pacific Northwest, nasturtiums are a freely self-seeding flower with almost-but-not-quite invasive tendencies. One small packet of cheap seed will literally keep you in all the nasturtiums you will ever need for the rest of your gardening life.
Here’s another one I think is never worth it to transplant: mesclun mix.
Cut-and-come-again crops like this are sown in broad swaths and the idea is that you “mow” a section as needed to harvest, and then the plants regrow a few times.
These crops are a very poor choice to buy as transplants. You cut the plants when they are about this size, so there is almost no advantage to buying a start. Stick to relatively cheap seed blends for this kind of crop, and sprinkle a small new patch of soil with your seed blend every 3-4 weeks.
I adore arugula. Love it! I plant it everywhere. It germinates in about 15 minutes and grows to this size in about 5 days. Ok, slight exagerations but this is another crop that is grown in cut-and-come-again swaths. Not a good choice to buy as seedlings.
Watch The Roots
True story: I was at my local nursery snapping the photos for this post and a couple next to me was looking for beet seedlings.
“Where are the beets? These look like beets. These are beets, right?” the husband asked the wife.
The husband got a blank look from the wife, so I jump in like the a-hole who can’t keep her mouth shut: “Those are red cabbage seedlings, actually. Beets are up here. This is Chiogga, a fun candy cane striped beet. And this is a dark red variety. But hey, you know, beets generally do really well from seed and aren’t always the easiest things to transplant. In general, you know, the root vegetables don’t like to be transplanted very much. Do you know where they sell the seeds?” And I point towards the seed racks.
At this point I’m getting the look from the husband. It’s a look that says, “I’m twice your age and really don’t like it when kids I’ve never met correct me in front of my wife. And also, why are you so weird? You’re weird, beet girl, you know that?”
So here’s your rule of thumb: if you can’t tell the difference between a red cabbage seedling and a beet seedling from fifteen feet away, you are not allowed to buy root vegetables from starts. You must direct sow.
Even if you pass the beet test, you best think very, very hard before you buy carrot starts:
Because…carrots? Really? Beets can be done, very carefully, from transplant, because they bulb at the top of the soil, but I think carrots from transplant are just silly.
Root veg warning exception: onions. Onions have roots which seem like they’ve been sprayed with detangler or something. Onions transplant very well. Expect that all the soil will totally fall away from the white roots. That’s normal, and doesn’t seem to phase onion transplants too badly.
No, You Can’t Save It
Sometimes you’ll see starts that just look bad. This tatsoi is an example of a very stressed little plant. The older leaves are totally yellow and if you look closely you’ll see the seedling is already bolting. This is an example of a plant where you should just burn your money rather than buy it and “give it a try.”
Any time you see a seedling with a floret already developed do not buy that plant. Teeny little broccoli or cauliflower head on the plant? That is not an adorable head start. That is the plant abandoning all hope for a better life and throwing a seed stalk in the hopes that maybe, just maybe its progeny will find root in something that isn’t a 2″ deep plastic pot. Pass.
Here’s another bolting seedling I saw, this time from what looks like an Asian mustard green in a mesclun blend.
What’s The Un-Potting Plan, Here, Anyway?
Some seed growers are very careful about thinning their seedlings and some aren’t. If I have a choice, I will always, always choose well thinned seedlings over a crowded tangle like this:
What’s the chance that you’re going to be able to get each of those seedlings separated and still keep some root mass on each of them? Pretty much nil, right?
Here was one grower’s broccoli seedlings in an undivided pot. With this kind of start you have to break apart the soil around the individual seedling in order to separate the start for transplanting. Look how jumbled up all the stems and root systems are.
Now compare this start, grown in the exact same size and shape of pot:
Breaking these seedlings apart will be easy because there is one very nice looking start in each corner. These are great looking starts!
No Supermodel Seedlings
I know tall and skinny is good for runway models, but it’s not good for seedlings. A super leggy plant, like this, has probably been grown “hot,” meaning with lots of supplemental bottom heat and probably not enough strong light.
Result: weak plant tissues that will be prone to breaking during transplant and will likely suffer massive transplant shock.
You really want your ideal seedling to have more of a strong and stocky physique: think Gimli-the-dwarf, not Giselle-the-Supermodel.
That’s it! There are some wonderful, well raised starts out there, but to get the best results, you have to remember that all seedlings are not the same, and you have to be choosey.3