Seeds or Plants? What to Consider When Buying
Growing vegetables used to mean raising them from seed, but thanks to their popularity, nurseries and mail-order companies now also offer a wide range of seedlings and young plants. Deciding what to buy is a question of how much time, money, and space you have, and which crops you have chosen to grow.
Growing plants from seed is easy and immensely satisfying. Seeds are available from nurseries and mail-order companies, or collect them from plants that have been left to flower. Seeds offer the widest choice of vegetable cultivars, with options of size, habit, color, and disease resistance. Potatoes are grown from tubers, known as seed potatoes, while miniature onion and shallot bulbs, called “sets,” provide an alternative to seed.
- Crop choices: All vegetables, but particularly root crops, which are best grown from seed. Alpine strawberries are the only fruit worth sowing.
- Pros: Seeds are cheap, and a package stored in cool, dry conditions can last several seasons. They offer control over plant numbers and flexibility to sow little and often.
- Cons: Seeds take time, require small pots or trays, and need space, especially tender crops that are sown indoors. Seeds provide great value for money and a good choice of crops.
Seedlings or Plug Plants
These small plants are grown in seed trays and can be bought in nurseries or through mail-order seed companies. They are a useful option where space is limited or conditions are not suitable for raising plants from seed and they offer good value for money. However, such small plants are delicate and will need potting up and watering as soon as you receive them, especially if they have arrived in the mail.
- Crop choices: No fruit but most vegetables are available as plugs, particularly those that are grown in quantity, such as lettuces and leafy crops like Swiss chard.
- Pros: Quicker than sowing seed, plugs save time and space, and are economical, even for lots of plants.
- Cons: The range of cultivars available is more limited than for seed. Plants need careful handling, potting, and acclimatizing to new conditions to avoid losses. Seedling plants, or “plugs”, save time and are relatively inexpensive.
Available from nurseries and mail-order companies, sturdy young plants grown individually in small pots offer gardeners the chance to try crops that may be too time consuming or difficult to grow from seed. If there is only space for one summer squash, or a single specimen of several tomato cultivars, then buying them as young plants makes sense. Look for strong, healthy plants that look stocky, bright green, and well-watered. Carefully knock plants from their containers to check that the roots are not cramped and pot-bound, and plant out as soon as they are hardened off and conditions are suitable.
- Crop choices: Good choices include strawberries and rhubarb, as well as fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, sweet and chili peppers, cucumbers, and eggplant.
- Pros: Larger plants make an instant impact and save the time and space needed to raise seedlings. They are valuable for heat-loving crops if you have nowhere indoors to sow and grow them on, and can be purchased after the frosts when they can be planted outside. They’re also a good idea if you only need one or two plants.
- Cons: This is an expensive way to grow vegetables, and there is a much more limited range of cultivars available. Plants must be acclimatized to outdoor conditions, too, so don’t buy too early if your indoor space is limited. Young plants are ideal if only a few crops are required.
Trees and Shrubs
Most fruit grows on trees and shrubs, which can either be bought growing in containers or as field-grown “bare-root” plants, which are lifted and sold when dormant between early winter and early spring. This dormant season is also the best time to plant fruit trees and bushes, although pot-grown types can be planted throughout the year.
Container-grown fruit is widely available, while bare-root plants are usually only available from specialist fruit nurseries via mail order. Always buy certified disease-free plants and check that trees are growing on a suitable rootstock for pots. If buying single specimens, make sure they are self-fertile; if not, you will need a suitable pollination partner as well.
- Crop choices: All fruit trees and bushes are available in these forms. Choose mature specimens that are ready to fruit if you want instant impact.
- Pros: Bare-root plants are cheaper and offer a wider range of cultivars on dwarfing rootstocks. Container-grown trees and shrubs can be planted year-round, are widely available, and don’t need planting immediately.
- Cons: Bare-root plants are only delivered in winter and early spring and must be planted immediately. Container-grown trees tend to be more expensive, with fewer cultivars on offer. Old stock can also be pot-bound. Buy fruit trees and bushes in containers for instant impact.