Posts Tagged transplanting seedlings

Seeds vs. Plants: The Pros and Cons

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know that most of the vegetables, flowers, and even herbs I grow began as seeds germinated in my little greenhouse. Frankly, I get a little giddy every late winter when these arrive:

Some of this year's seed order.

Some of this year’s seed order.

I have my reasons for preferring this method, but there are plenty of good reasons to plant your flower and vegetable gardens with small plants you buy locally. Today, I thought I’d go over a few of the pros and cons for each method.

A few of the seeds of varieties I've successfully germinated so far this year.

A few of the seeds of varieties I’ve successfully germinated so far this year.

Starting from Seed: Pros

  • You can grow exactly the varieties you want because you order the seeds and grow them yourself.
  • Seeds are much less expensive than plants, so you can grow more of everything.
  • You control growing conditions for your plants from germination to transplantation in their permanent locations in your garden.
  • The big sense of accomplishment that comes from doing it all yourself is a great feeling.

Starting from Seed: Cons

  • Unless you can provide optimal indoor conditions for germination, you may get poor germination rates.
  • If you direct-sow in the garden, you are at the mercy of the weather. You can ameliorate a lack of rain with watering, but you must watch for soil crusting that can prevent seeds from emerging, and if you get a hard rain, seeds will travel remarkable distances, or disappear entirely.
  • If you direct-sow in the garden, you also must watch for raids from marauding voles, and if soil temperatures are too cool or too warm, some seeds won’t germinate.
From let to right: Dianthus 'Lace Perfume,' Italian 'Gigante' Parsley, Tuscan Baby Leaf Kale, and Italian Aromatic Sage seeds.

From let to right: Dianthus ‘Lace Perfume,’ Italian ‘Gigante’ Parsley, Tuscan Baby Leaf Kale, and Italian Aromatic Sage seeds.

  • Most herb seeds, many flower seeds, and even a lot of vegetable seeds are quite small. You’ll need practice to become adept at handling them, putting them where you want them, etc.
From left to right: Tyee spinach, Merlot lettuce, La Roma III tomato, and Etiuda pepper seeds.

From left to right: Tyee spinach, Merlot lettuce, La Roma III tomato, and Etiuda pepper seeds (click on the image to see a larger version of the photo.

  • Soil depth is critical when planting seeds. Many beginners plant seeds too deeply, which prevents their germination. Follow planting depth directions on the seed packets assiduously.

Starting from Plants You Buy: Pros

  • You save enormous amounts of time by not having to bother with seed germination, and transplanting and nurturing seedlings until they’re ready for your garden.
  • You can buy exactly the number of plants you want without spending time trying to find homes for extra plants you grew because of inaccurate guessing of seed germination rates.
  • You can see living plants before you buy them, rather than relying on often-overflattering catalog descriptions. This allows you to select the sturdiest, healthiest plants with the best root systems.
  • If you live in an area like mine, where farmers’ markets abound, you’ll be able to purchase healthy, locally grown plants ready for your garden. And because these folks usually sell the same varieties they grow for market, you’ll be able to choose from plants well-adapted for your area, grown by experts who love their work. And they often sell heirloom varieties of plants as well as hybrid choices.

Starting from Plants: Cons

  • If your only option for plant starts is a big box store’s garden section, you usually won’t get great plants. These are often grown in one place and shipped all over the country, so varieties aren’t necessarily the best for your region, and are usually limited to a few choices. Also, the plants are not treated well during shipping or even in the garden section at the store. Have you ever noticed how staff at such places leave innocent plants out in conditions that are too hot and/or too cold? And how they water the poor things? Find a better local source for your plants or suffer the consequences.
  • You don’t know if your purchased plants always grew in optimal conditions. Even if they look healthy, if they were exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees, studies have shown that tomato plants are never as productive as those maintained above that temperature.
  • Often the sizes of plants you buy are limited. Early in the season, they may all be small. Small plants don’t handle transplanting stress as well as larger ones. On the other hand, larger transplants can break during transplanting. As with seed sowing, transplanting takes practice and patience to perfect.
I grew these healthy tomato seedlings from seed. At this size, they require carefully handling during transplantation.

I grew these healthy tomato seedlings from seed. At this size, they require careful handling during transplantation.

  • Buying plants is more expensive than buying seeds, and if you lose plants during transplanting, you’ll spend more money to buy replacements. Most folks will buy fewer varieties when they buy plants instead of seeds because of cost considerations.

I hope this helps my fellow Piedmont gardeners as they contemplate this year’s growing season. Time, money, and experience all impact what you decide to grow. I hope this post helps you clarify how you’ll choose what to grow in your garden this year.

My seed-grown Italian parsley germinated better than I anticipated. I'm going to need to be creative about finding spots for all of them.

My seed-grown Italian parsley germinated better than I anticipated. I’m going to need to be creative about finding spots for all of them.

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Greenhouse updates

It was a busy week away from the garden, and now I’m paying for it. My to-do list is growing exponentially while my done list hasn’t changed. This happens to me every spring. In my defense, the insanely hot weather limits the time I’m willing to work inside the greenhouse. It’s just too hot in there for delicate work, and sowing tiny seeds in tiny pots constitutes delicate work in my book.

Theoretically, tomorrow morning will be cooler. I hope so, because I need to transplant the mesclun mix seedlings into their permanent beds in the garden. Thanks to a little watering with dilute fish emulsion/seaweed mix, they are raring to go. See for yourself:

Of course, the tiny seedlings in the top left corner are not ready for prime time yet. They are petunia seedlings. I’ve never grown petunias from seeds before. In fact, until last year, I’d never grown any petunias at all. They seemed rather uninteresting to me.

But last year, I bought a hanging pot of some electric purple petunias that looked fabulous all summer despite the searing afternoon sun that hammered them daily. The hummingbirds loved them too, so I decided to try my hand at growing them from seed. Thank goodness I started them early, because it will be a while before they’re ready for their hanging pot.

I started my chive seeds early too, because they are notoriously slow to germinate, and often germinate unevenly. Not this time. This time germination was nearly 100%, I like the way the long seedling leaves hold on to their now-empty seed hulls — like little sporty caps:

Chive seedlings

It’s not a great picture, but if you click on it to enlarge it, you can see the little black seed caps I’m talking about. This picture is 4 days old, and in that time, many of the chive seedlings have begun pushing out second leaves. It will still be a while before they’re ready for the garden, but I’m happy with their progress.

I also had room to plant two tomato varieties, so I started with the two that take the most number of days to produce fruit: Purple Russian and Ferline. The heirloom Purple Russian germinated first — 100%. Ferline was a few days slower, and also gave me 100% germination. Peppers always take longer to show up to the party. Finally today, all my Carmen seedlings are poking up. The Apple seeds — as of this morning — had not yet appeared. They may well have by now. The heat is really cranking up productivity in all the plants, regardless of their size.

I’ve also got Fernleaf Dill seedlings just up as well. The package says it’s best to direct-sow these in the garden, but I have better success and control using the greenhouse method. Tomorrow morning after I transplant the eager seedlings pictured above, I’ll be sowing as many more of the tomatoes as will fit in the germination chamber.

If room permits, I’ll squeeze in some basil seeds too. I like them to get to a good size before I plant them out. And I’ve promised some basil plants to several friends, so I need to plant extras. Frankly, I’ve found that there’s no such thing as too much basil in a garden.

In the vegetable garden itself, my only success is the peas, which are well up now. However, the heat and drought are starting to take a toll on their enthusiasm. There’s not much I can do about the heat, but I can continue to water — at least until the well goes dry.

I’m trying not to worry about that while spring is making all the plants and animals in my yard bright and busy.  One day at a time. One to-do at a time. And constant, fervent prayers for precipitation.

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Confessions of an overzealous gardener

Some of you may remember my earlier entry on Sweet Alyssum. Remember that photo of all the little happy seedlings in four rows of a square flat? Those seedlings are a lot bigger now. All of them have at least two additional leaves, some more. They’re about two inches tall, and hopelessly crowded.

Yesterday and today, I started gently teasing tangled roots apart and transplanting individual seedlings into their own roomy 4-pack cells. Before I started, I watered them with a dilute solution of fish emulsion/seaweed extract in the hopes of reducing their transplant shock. I fed them this solution a week earlier too, which is probably why they grew so enthusiastically.

My methodology for transplanting to the cell packs is straightforward. I start by filling the cells about a third of a way with potting mix. I then add a tiny sprinkling of all-purpose organic fertilizer, and stir it into the soil. As I gently hold a tender seedling with two fingers, I pour potting mix around it with the other hand, firming the soil as I go.

After all four cells contain transplants, I water the pack thoroughly. This is a slow process. Water must be added very gently, or the dry potting mix sloshes out of the cells and the transplants get knocked over and buried. Slowly, slowly I add water, wait until it disappears, add more, wait, prop up any flopping seedlings, add a little more water, until water is coming out of the bottom and the soil in the cells seems thoroughly wet.

I did this for an hour yesterday and another hour today. As I type, 85 — yes, that’s eighty-five — transplanted seedlings are adjusting to their new locales. That’s the good news — if we agree that it’s good that these poor little crowded seedlings now have a chance to grow properly.

The bad news? Actually that’s two-fold. I’m going to have EIGHTY-FIVE Sweet Alyssums to plant among the vegetables (and anywhere else I can find open spots). The second bit of bad news: I only transplanted one and one-third of the four rows in the original flat. I estimate that approximately — ahem — 250-300 more overcrowded seedlings are impatiently waiting their transplanting turn.

What was I thinking? In my defense, I don’t think I’ve ever grown this flower from seed before. I usually buy a few packs at the local garden store. But they weren’t there yet when I asked for them a few weeks ago, and the salesperson couldn’t tell me when they might arrive. So I bought a package of seeds instead, and, well, I went a little nuts with the sowing.

It’s especially easy for me to get carried away like this in late winter/early spring. The allure of a humid greenhouse, rich soil, and green baby plants is irresistible, I confess.

You may wonder what I plan to do with those hundreds of crowded and untransplanted seedlings. For now, while I still have room in the greenhouse, I’m going to leave them as they are. If they are still alive after my already-transplanted seedlings have all found homes, and if I think I might still have a few free spots for more alyssums, I’ll try to gently separate more of them and directly plunk them into the ground. If they live — fabulous! If they don’t, their little plant bodies will contribute to the organic material in the soil.

Any remaining untransplanted seedlings will become compost — a bit of an ignoble end for innocent victims of my excess enthusiasm. But, in one form or another, they will all eventually make it into my garden.


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