Seeds or Transplants
Imagining Garden

Once you have drawn up a list of the vegetables you want to grow, you must decide which ones to start from seed and which to buy as transplants. Growing from seed takes longer and may require additional skill to ensure success. However, some vegetables grow better when direct-seeded than transplanted. And you'll have a wider selection of varieties to choose from when starting plants from seed. All-America Selections If you're still unsure about I which vegetable variety I to grow, look for the AII l America Selections (AAS) I winner emblem. This award . is bestowed on varieties that have been tria led across the country and evaluated by independent professional horticultural judges. The judges look for significantly improved qualities such as earliness, disease or pest tolerance, novel flavors, total yield, length of harvest, and I. overall performance. These i varieties are widely adapted, I greatly improving the odds 1 that an AAS winner is one that will grow well in your garden.

Growing From Seeds


There is something magical about a seed, a tiny package loaded with all the genetic codes needed to grow your favorite vegetable. Although many vegetables can now be bought as transplants at local garden centers, at home improvement centers, or through the mail, it's still fascinating to experience this particular metamorphosis.


Seeds have some practical advantages as well. They offer the greatest selection at negligible cost, and they're available everywhere in spring: at grocery stores, hardware stores, and garden centers as well as online and from seed catalogs. Especially in the catalogs, you'll see the incredible diversity that's offered, far beyond what is available as transplants.


Note that some seeds are best sown directly in the soil while others need planting indoors for transplanting into the garden later on. Mostly it's a question of timing because some plants need to start growing before it's safe to plant them outdoors. Large seeds that germinate quickly are easier to sow outdoors. Small seeds that germinate slowly or germinate best at a specific soil temperature are often easier to manage indoors. Beans, peas, carrots, and radishes are some of the vegetables sown directly in the garden. Artichokes, celery, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants should be started indoors before transplanting into the garden, or purchased as transplants. Some vegetables-onions, broccoli, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, and cabbage-go either way. You can sow seeds in the garden or start them from transplants, whichever better suits your season and temperament. Just follow the planting directions on the packet for the best results.


Growing From Transplants


Some seeds can be tricky and time-consuming to start indoors or to sow directly in the garden. If you prefer to have a garden center do the work, you can buy many vegetables in four-packs, six-packs, or 4-inch pots. Buying transplants takes the guesswork out of starting seeds and is great for someone growing only a few vegetables in a bed or in containers. These small plants are still relatively inexpensive, give you immediate satisfaction, and are easy to pop into the ground or into a planter. When shopping for transplants use these guidelines to purchase the healthiest seedlings.


  * Check for healthy roots

They should fill the pot but not crowd it. Avoid transplants with roots growing out the bottom or circling inside the pot. Such plants are slower to recover after planting.


  * Look for insect damage

Two common indications of insect activity are holes in the leaves and chewed leaf margins. Examine the stems, the soil, and the tops and bottoms of the leaves for any signs of crawling or flying insects.


  * Check for sign of disease

Reject any plants with foliage marked by spots, streaks, sickly yellowing, or brown crispy edges. The leaves should be green, even on the underside (unless that particular variety is supposed to be variegated or have foliage of a different color). Stems should be dense and sturdy Put back plants with straggly or leggy stems.


Saving Leftover Seeds


Buying fresh packets of seeds each year from a reputable source is a great way to start vegetable gardening. But in subsequent years what about all those opened, half-filled seed packets from previous years? How long seeds last in storage depends on several factors. Most seeds are ideally stored at 50°F and 25 percent humidity. Under these ideal conditions the longevity listed in the chart on the facing page is typical. Seeds are alive, though in a dormant state, which is why storage conditions make such a big difference. In practice the best way to store opened seed packets is sealed inside a resealable bag with all the air removed. Then double-seal the seeds in another bag and store them in the refrigerator crisper.


Testing Seeds


To check older seeds before planting them, test their viability. * Place 10 seeds on top of a damp, folded paper towel. -> Put the towel and seeds into a plastic sandwich bag and seal it. ->Label the bag with the date and seed variety being tested. -> Leave most seeds at room temperature in a location out of direct sunlight for a week or so. (Leave carrot and celery longer; they're slow to germinate.)

Germination above 80 percent-8 of the 10 seeds-is considered good enough for planting in the garden. If your seeds test at 70 percent germination isn't necessarily reason to throw them away. You can still plant them in the garden, but sow the seeds thicker than recommended. But if only 6 or fewer of 10 seeds germinate, Germmination in the garden will almost certainly be poorer than under the controlled conditions of the test.


Sowing Seeds Indoors


Vegetables such as beans, peas, and sweet corn are best grown from seeds sown directly in the garden in spring. Most root crop vegetables, such as carrots, beets, parsnips, and radishes, don't transplant well and need to be directly sown. Certain other vegetables are better started indoors or purchased as transplants. If vegetables that need a long season to mature, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, are directly sown, they won't be able to fruit before a fall frost in many locations. In fact, the tender seedlings may not survive uneven spring weather. If you want to experiment, sow some tomato seeds in your garden this spring and also put out some tomato transplants, then compare how many fruits they produce before the first frost.


Start lettuce, onions, cucumbers, squash, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and chard indoors to get a jump on the season. Later, sow seeds of the same vegetables in the garden. Doing a little of each extends the harvest. Although starting seeds indoors to be transplanted our doors is not as popular as it once was, many gardeners find it satisfying to start seeds indoors while snow and cold winds blow outdoors. With modern methods and products, starting seed indoors is a lot easier and more likely to be a success. First you have to begin with the right materials and the right conditions.




Many types of containers are appropriate for starting seedlings indoors. Look for ones that drain well and are large enough to hold the proper amount of soil for the varieties you're growing.


Plastic Trays

When starting a large number of plants, try using plastic trays, which are usually 10 inches wide, 20 inches long, and 2 inches deep with no individual cells. Fill the tray with soilless seed-starting mix, and sprinkle seeds in rows. Once the true leaves (the second set of leaves) form, transplant seedlings into individual pots. Plastic trays are great if you're planting a large garden with many seedlings of the same vegetable, such as a large crop of tomatoes.

Plastic Pots

This type of container is the most commonly used for starting seeds. The pots are sold in multiple cell trays called cell packs, which usually have six cells, each 2 inches wide and deep. Recently, because gardens are smaller and fewer plants are needed, four-packs have become popular. The cells are large enough to grow some vegetables, such as lettuce and broccoli, to a size large enough to transplant directly into the garden. Other vegetables, such as eggplant and tomato, will need to be moved into larger pots (4- or 6-inch-diameter pots) to grow a few weeks longer indoors and then transplanted into the garden. Plastic pots can be reused each year if they are cleaned out with a 10 percent solution of household bleach and water (1 part bleach to 9 parts water). Soak pots in the bleach solution for 10 minutes to kill disease spores and wash away fertilizer salts.

Peat Pots

Made of compressed peat moss, coir (coconut husks), or compost, these pots are sold individually or in multi-packs. Their advantage is you plant the entire pot without disturbing the roots within, and the pot gradually disintegrates into the soil. They are especially good for cucumber or squash, which have sensitive roots. Soil in peat pots dry out faster than soil in plastic and thus need more frequent watering.

Peat Pellets

These disks are made of compressed peat. Simply place the disk in water and watch it expand into a cylinder 2 inches tall and wide. Plant the seed in the expanded disk, which you then treat the same as a peat pot.

Found Containers

Materials around the home, such as egg cartons, yogurt containers, and waxed paper cups, can be used as containers for starting seeds. All that's needed are drainage holes. You can even make seed starting containers from newspaper using a paper pot maker (available at some garden centers and through mail order catalogs). Newspaper pots are planted in the soil like peat pots. Seedlings started in house hold containers that aren't biodegradable need to be removed from the container before planting in the garden.


Soil for Seeds


Never use garden soil for seed starting because it compacts, preventing tender roots from expanding, and it may contain weed seeds, diseases, and insects. Choose a commercial soilless seed-starting mix made of peat moss, perlite, and starter fertilizer. These mixes are sterilized and especially formulated for seedlings. Each component in a seed-starting soilless mix has a role to play: Perlite is a volcanic material that helps with aeration; peat moss provides the bulk needed for roots to grow; and starter fertilizer pellets help seeds grow strongly.




Most vegetable seeds don't need direct light to germinate, but once growing they do need adequate light so they don't become tall and leggy. Leggy seedlings are weak and won't transplant as successfully as short, stocky seedlings. Even though a lot oflight may seem to pour through your windows in winter, it usually isn't enough for seedlings. The light may alternate between too much and too little, or a cold snap may slow the growth of seedlings near the window. An indoor lighting setup that includes fluorescent lights is more dependable. A combination of cool white and warm or natural daylight tubes is best. The light quality and intensity is just right for seedlings, even though you won't be able to grow tomatoes or other ftuiting plants to maturity under these fluorescents.




Create a schedule for all the seeds you want to start indoors, based on the right time to start seeds in your area (see the individual plant entries in the encyclopedia). Here's how to plant in the containers you have chosen.


Moisten the soilless mix in a pail so it's damp but not soaked.

Place the pots or trays on a watertight tray. Fill the plastic or peat pots to within 1;2 inch of the top of the container or flat.

Use a pencil or chopstick to poke a hole in the soil. Plant one or two seeds per individual container. With trays, make a furrow and plant in rows. (You'll have to transplant seedlings from trays into individual containers following germination. )

Sow seeds twice as deep as the seed's diameter.

Label the container with the variety name and date using a pencil, or water-proof marker.




Seeds tend to need warmer temperatures to germinate than to grow. Most vegetables germinate best with soil temperatures between 70 and 90°F. Even cool-season vegetables, such as broccoli and leeks, germinate fastest with soil temperatures around 80°F. The faster that seeds germinate, the less likely they are to rot or be damaged by insects. Under ideal soil temperatures most seeds will germinate within one week. However, some vegetables, such as leeks, may take longer.


Setting your trays or pots over a warming mat speeds germination greatly. Commercial temperature-controlled, waterproof heating mats are available to ease the process. Or you can place the seedling trays on the top of the refrigerator or anyplace that provides a little extra warmth. Check the trays daily to ensure the soil stays moist; gently water with a hand mister or bottom-water as needed. To water a tray from the bottom-and avoid displacing tiny seeds-pour a small amount of water into the watertight tray holding the cell packs or open trays. Water will naturally travel into the dry soil. Move the trays under lights as soon as the first seeds begin to germinate.


Place the fluorescent tubes 2 or 3 inches from the top of the seedlings. Move the fixtures every few days to keep them at the proper distance from the seedlings. Set the lights on a timer so that they are on 14 to 16 hours a day. Keep the air temperatures between 60 and 70°F degree, with temperatures at night 10 degrees cooler.


Transplanting Seedlings


Once seedlings form a second set ofleaves, called true leaves, transplant them into individual four- or six-packs or peat pots. For plantings sown initially into peat pots or cell packs, thin the seedlings to one per pot or cell; use scissors to snip off the weaker seedlings at the soil line. Don't pull out the weaker seedlings by hand or you will disturb the root system of the one you want to keep. When transplanting seedlings grown in an open tray, gently hold the young leaves and lift them out of the soil using a pencil or spoon to reach into the soil at the same time. Don't hold them by the stem, which is fragile and may break and kill the seedling. Place the seedling in the cell pack or peat pot, firming the soil around the roots, and gently water. Place the transplants back under the lights.


For large plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, you might need to transplant a second time into larger pots before planting them outdoors. Figure that once a seedling's height is three times the diameter of the pot, it's time to move it into a slightly larger container.


Seeding Care


Keep seedlings watered and fertilized with one-quarter strength liquid fertilizer applied every time you water. Maintain the room temperature at 60 to 70°F degree, and keep the humidity between 50 and 70 percent by misting the plants periodically. A small fan lightly moving air over the seedlings can help avoid disease development.


Hardening Off


One week before you're ready to transplant your seedlings into the garden, start hardening them-acclimating them to outdoor conditions before planting them in the garden.


Find an outdoor location that's protected from wind and receives morning sun. Place the seedlings outside, ideally on a cloudy, windless day that's above 50F degree, for a few hours, then bring them indoors. Gradually extend the amount of time they are outdoors over a one-week period. By the end of the week, you can leave them outdoors overnight. If the weather isn't right for transplanting, you can hold seedlings in a cold frame or under cloches until you're ready to plant.


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