Why I Grow Vegetables From Seed

Chard destined for failure

On the last day of a vegetable gardening class that Kelly and I just finished teaching at the Huntington, we needed to demonstrate how to transplant seedlings. The problem was that we didn’t have any seedlings at home ready to transplant, so I had to make a trip to a garden center.

That sorry errand reminded me why I grow from seed.

All of the seedlings at the nursery were uninteresting varieties and root-bound–way too big for their pots. And someone tell me what’s up with the trend I’ve noticed recently of selling mature tomato plants in small pots? I suppose novice gardeners probably think they’re getting a better value with a large plant, so the nursery has an incentive to sell root-bound stock.

In fact, every last vegetable seedling at the nursery had root systems as congested as the 405 freeway on a Friday afternoon. When roots hit the bottom of a pot you get what John Jeavons calls “premature senility,” resulting in stunted growth and plants that go rapidly to seed.

On occasion I’ll buy seedlings, as when I failed to get my tomato seeds to germinate last year. In that case, Craig from Winnetka Farms had some on hand. And there’s a guy at one of the local farmers’ markets that has decent seedlings.

But nothing matches the variety, cost savings and quality of DIY seed propagation.

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  1. Poor selection and poor condition are some of the reasons I don’t buy seedlings, but the main reason is I no have no idea what was used in the process of growing the seedlings that makes me reluctant to buy them. I’ve bought seedlings from a farmer’s market vendor, but never from a big box store.

  2. Last year we started our own veggies from seed and they did so much better than the seedlings we bought from the co-op. Now I have the problem of starting more seedlings than I have space to plant. To solve this problem, more veggie plants are making their way to my flower beds too!

  3. Last semester I took a greenhouse production class, and our instructor (who owns and runs two small nurseries) told us about some of the sad realities of selling plants, eg, nobody wants to buy a plant that will have flowers in the future, they want the flowers now. This then leads not only to selling mature tomato plants in small pots (customer gets a ready made plant, and the nursery pays less for a smaller pot and less soil) all the way to breeding/genetic engineering plants to flower earlier and earlier.

    Of course, the old school starry-eyed Science Fiction Future side of me hopes that someday this will all lead to a single plant that grows tomatoes, carrots, apples, and cigarettes that don’t hurt me, but then it’ll it probably be patented by Big Agro and priced out of reach to starving people with a nic-fit.

  4. This is a great and timely post. For those of us in the North East, we are shaking off the cold and are in the midst of starting our seedlings from seeds indoors (as outdoor planting won’t start until the end of April). I’m envious of those in more temperate climates, but such is life.

    This is the first year we are trying to grow the majority of our vegtable plants from seeds. We were amzaed when we saw the breadth of options available by seed, as opposed to what we were used to from farmers market seedlings and other nurseries. Hopefully it will be an excellent harvest this year.

    One question for those who are seasoned ‘From-Seed’ gardeners – is there a good rule of thumb for the correct size of pot to make sure the plant does not get rootbound? We are using recycled yogurt cups and other recycled 8-12 oz containers to give the plants enough growing space until transplant day arrives. Is this to small?



  5. i have noticed the tomato trend too. but i still don’t have the patience for seeds with everybody. good to know about Winnetka Farms.

  6. @JW: It’s not so much the size of the pot you use as how long you wait until you transplant. Basically the sooner you can transplant, the better. Most books say you can transplant when the seedling gets its second set of leaves, “the true leaves.” If you’re transplanting at that point, you can grow in 3″ deep containers. If you’re transplanting later, it gets more dicey. Hard to say how fast those roots will grow. If you’ve got seedlings in a shallow container and circumstances prevent you from getting them into the ground in good time, transplant them into deeper containers.

  7. Count us among those who start out veggies from seedlings as well. we’ve been so much happier with the quality, variety, and taste of homegrown from seed.

  8. I tend to plant from seed because we really like watching the seedlings come up and getting to see the whole development of the plant. Though I will buy starts from places like Farmer’s Market for things we really only want 1-3 plants of or things that don’t do so well from seeds and no one else we know has them (horseradish, for instance).

  9. Just curious about what you’re using for potting soil when starting your own plants. Are you making your own?

  10. I’ve been using a combo of potting mix and a DIY mix that our friend Tara Kolla developed that combines peat moss, vermiculite, perlite and worm castings. However, I have concerns about the use of peat moss which is unsustainably harvested. Therefore, after this season, I’m switching to Jeavons’ half compost/half soil mix. At some point, I’ll also do a blog post about peat moss alternatives.

  11. Those are the very same reasons I have been starting everything from seed also. Through time and trial and error, I have become quite good at it, and mine are far superior to what I can buy at the nurseries, and I can have a great variety too. I stick with my tied and true and then try a couple new things each year. Plus it is a great mental boost to be working on spring even if it is just indoors and it’s still snowing outside!

  12. What about the use of a soil cube like Jack Spirko uses??
    I just bought one but I dont have any experience with it.
    Anyone help??

  13. Being rootbound is not the endall and death of a perfectly good plant. Especially when you are talking about tomatoes. I grow all my tomatoes from seed but for those that end up with failed seedlings or simply run out of time you can salvage any nursery plant. Unless you slice right through the main stalk Tomato plants are pretty damn hearty. Get out a trusty pair of scissors and trim off all the bound roots on the edges. Dig you a trench and bury damn near the whole remaining Tomato plant. Roots will also develope all along the stem of the plant you buried leave a few inches above ground and that portion will take off. Most of my tomato plants hit 5-10feet depending on variety this way and I’ve rarely lost a plant. Also most nursery plants are pretty resiliant to trimming their root system. Exceptions seem to be Cukes and squash but those can go in the ground as seed as soon as soil is warm. Also do not be afraid to trim the hell out of the top of the plant. People see all the leaves and growth at the nursery and assume they have a healthy plant. But if they foliage system is larger thant he root system it will struggle. Trim the upper part of the plant to match the root system at first, or the leaves will transpire more moisture than the roots can pull from the soil. In this way any growth you trim back will recover quickly.

  14. I grow almost everything from seed, in a variety of sizes of pots, or straight into the ground. But then a couple of times each spring, we do a pilgrimage to some nurseries and I just can’t help myself and buy something, usually perennials, sometimes annual flowers, sometimes shrubs.

    Last year I had all of this left over potting soil mix, I can’t remember the exact name, but it was a type used in planters – it had a weird gel in it. Anyway, I had pretty terrible germination, I think the seeds just rotted. This year I made my own soil with 2 of compost to 1 of soil (our soil has a lot of clay) and the drainage isn’t as good, but the germination is fantastic (and the weed seeds are lovin’ it).

  15. @Anon about the Soil Cube

    We’ve never used one, so really can’t help you. Maybe others will chime in.

    All we’d say, from our admittedly ignorant standpoint, is that it seems odd to start plants in compressed soil. We try to keep our seedling mixes as light and fluffy as possible. And we start seeds in shallow boxed made of discarded lumber–nothing has ever worked better for us.

  16. I am having no luck this year for my seeds that I started inside. A miriad of issues to be sure. I am going to settle those next spring. My big question is this: why are my yellow pear heirloom tomatoes not doing so well after transplantation? They did so well inside, not root bound at all. I planted them up to their necks as mentioned above, have always done that for tomatoes. All other plants are thriving. Most started in the ground as soon as we hit 70′ here in S Louisiana. My peppers are coming up, my eggplant is coming up, my onions are great, garlic, okra…. I even got some asparagus going (I thought That would never happen) But what the heck is up with these tomatoes? I even have some (gasp) nursery cherry tomatoes that are doing better than them! Jeesh! All are in same soil. I usually have NO problems with it and get it from the same nursery every year. ( I grow in boxes because of the extremely high water table where I am at, like mushy ground mostly with clay) I am finally able to have a compost instead of using store bought…. but that won’t happen until late summer at best. HELP! I want these tomatoes so very badly to do well and to collect seed from them!

  17. Anonymous,

    Are the roots of your tomato plants hitting the bottom of what you’re starting them in? Tomatoes need space. Also, are you hardening off your seedlings, i.e. getting them adjusted to growing outside before you transfer them? Don’t know your climate well–is it warm outside?

  18. I’m trying seedlings for the first time this year, and I’m having partial luck. Some things are coming up, and then shriveling up. I water them and don’t let them dry out too much. What am I doing wrong? Should I fertilize them this early?

  19. @Becky:

    It’s very hard to comment on your problem without seeing it first hand. There’s a seed propagation problem called “damping off” — it’s a fungal disease that causes seedlings to fail. Google that and see if the symptoms look familiar.

    Generally speaking seedlings don’t need fertilizer, though some people feed them some very watered down organic fertilizer after their first true leaves appear. We don’t use fertilizer at all as a rule, trusting compost to nourish our soil. At any rate, I doubt lack of fertilizer is the problem. Too much water, or heavy, compressed soil is the more likely culprit. Did you use seed starting mix for them?

  20. Mr Homegrown,
    Yellow Pear Tomatoe problem:
    Nope the roots didn’t hit bottom. I even dug around some of the tomatoes to see what was happening in the soil I put them in, NOTHING. MAYBE a few little white roots coming out of the main stem, at best. We have been warm here 75′-82′ these last three weeks, 8 hours of light on this particular box a day. I have to water daily because we have been unusually dry (until two days ago when we had torentual down pour with hail, safe tho),windy, and grow in raised beds where water is at a premium. With the rain came a bit of cool weather but we will be in the 75’to 80′ range by lunch. That is only the last few days. Perhaps this little coolness will jump start something for my tomatoes. I am actually contemplating taking them out of this bed and potting them up individually with some different soil. Everything else is doing well so maybe there is just a little something these particular tomatoes want? I’ve read all the fertilizer demands of tomatoes. But is there something in particular that can help root growth that I am missing? As close to nature as possible? I want to be able to always use the same techniques. My soil is a composite of course sand, organic material (wood and otherwise) and I believe a tiny amount of maneur. It only has a very slight aroma and I a very sensitive nose. As stated before I usually have great success with this soil. I have grown this tomatoe before also, but am not using seeds from my personal growning. All is not lost, I shall only move on to a new cycle of tomatoes. We are in Jefferson Parish Louisiana. Almost at the most southern part near Barataria Bay. We have a blessed VERY long growning season here. Well into November some years!
    Thanks so much for your attention!
    We have recently begun our trek back to homesteading, I am enjoying it so very much!

  21. Sounds like a soil problem–an imbalance, nematodes or disease (tomatoes in warm climates get all of the above). You might try growing disease resistant varieties. Look for “VFM” after the name of the variety. VFM stands for verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and tobacco mosaic virus.

    Here’s a diagnostic guide that can help you figure out what the problem is: http://vegetablemdonline.ppath.cornell.edu/diagnostickeys/TomKey.html.

    Next step is to get a soil test. Your local extension service may have a low cost or even a free test. If not you can get a soil test for around $10 from the University of Massachusetts: http://www.umass.edu/soiltest/.

    Another tip–don’t plant tomatoes in the same place every year.

  22. Seeds rule! For me it’s just the cost. I can’t stand a garden that costs us more money than it saves. And when you add unavoidable costs of gardening to the cost of purchased live plants, you almost can’t break even.

    Several gardeners in our city farm co-op space buy live lettuce plants at $2 each (for about a dollar’s worth of lettuce mix at the grocery store), when it costs about $3 for about 300 – 1000 seeds……and it ain’t like the seeds have trouble growing! I spilled some out of my pocket in our front yard landscaping last September, and now there’s leaf lettuce growing among the lavender!

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