Buying Vegetable Seedlings

Garden centers stock racks of seeds, but their major asset is their supply of seedlings. Early in the season, and later, when it is time to set out summer and early-fall crops, garden centers offer seedlings ready to beat the time clock.

Seeds Versus Seedlings

Sowing a pack of seeds is less work than transplanting dozens of seedlings, and is the best planting method in regions where the climate allows the crop time to mature from seed. But setting out seedling transplants saves a lot of growing time.

If the growing season is too short to mature two successive crops from seed, it may mature two crops set out as transplants. In the North, only the tiniest and earliest tomatoes started in the garden as seeds have time to ripen a full crop before frost. In warmer regions cool-weather vegetables, such as broccoli, set out as seed may bolt in heat before harvest.

Tomatoes are one of the most popular warm-weather crops that cannot be sown outdoors until the temperature approaches 70 degrees. Some gardeners plant tomato seeds and seedlings. The tiny, very flavorful ‘Sweet 100 Hybrid’ tomatoes begin to mature in just 57 days, so there is time for a crop from seed in most areas. However, the big, juicy beefsteak tomatoes require 80 days to mature, so gardeners in most of the country install these as big container-grown plants already flowering and sometimes fruiting.

If you just need a few plants, such as one of those beefsteak tomatoes or a couple of cucumber plants, it’s simpler and less expensive to buy plants from a nursery than nursing them along from seed or starting your own seedlings.

Many gardeners enjoy growing their own seedlings, especially in early winter while waiting for the garden to warm up. See for instructions.

About Buying Seedlings

Started in the garden, seedlings suffer a little stress—enough to slow growth a bit and make sturdy plants. It takes a while for them to become as lush-looking as seedlings from a greenhouse. But plants fresh out of the greenhouse are sometimes overgrown and tender from their special treatment. They may need some time to get established and toughen up once you plant them in the garden.

A few neighborhood nurseries and garden centers grow their own seedlings. Some will even start seeds you bring in and then sell you the seedlings. But they tend more and more to sell seedlings purchased from wholesale growers. Seedlings from wholesalers are usually chosen for their quick germination, proven performance, shelf life, and visual appeal. The focus generally is not on grand old varieties and taste treats. They offer a few of the tried-and-true favorites, but you will not find a lot of variety. If you did, the many small seed catalogs offering specialty herbs and vegetables would have gone out of business long ago.

Buying High-Quality Seedlings

When selecting seedlings, make sure you get the best the garden center has to offer. Garden centers are likely to care well for their stock. But some of the bargain chains, supermarkets, and hardware stores that offer seedlings in spring do not know how to care for plants. Seedlings whose growth has been checked by lack of water, light, or air are off to a poor start. And even the best garden centers may have some stock left that has been there too long.

Look for strong, stocky seedlings with these qualities:

  • Crisp, dark green foliage. Avoid flats whose seedlings are yellowing at the base.
  • Sturdy growth. Avoid seedlings whose leaves are stretched out on weak stems. They may have been deprived of light and perhaps nutrients.
  • Damp soil. If the soil in the flats is dry, even if the seedlings have not yet wilted, they are facing a check in development that shows up as delayed growth after you transplant.
  • Free from pests. Are there minute holes in the leaves? Are patches of the leaves sticky looking? Do dustlike motes dance up when you brush the foliage? If you bring home critters, they will buzz off to infest the rest of the garden.