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Many people prefer to grow all their own plants, flowers and vegetables, from seed and say that this is the proper way to build your garden. Others prefer to leave the hard work of growing from seed to the professionals and buy their plants from garden centres. There is no right or wrong way to do this, it is up to your individual circumstances with many reasons in favour of both gardening methods. Today we will discuss the pros and cons of both. But first in order to fully understand the various reasons you will have to know a bit about plants, seeds and gardening methods in general.
Seeds are one way that plants ensure the continuation of their species. They are produced after the plant has flowered. Some seeds are produced directly from the flower, and in the wild rely on wind to distribute them. Some plants produce fruit and in this case seeds are formed inside or on the surface of the fruit (for example, apples and strawberries). The plant relies on animals to eat the fruit and distribute the seeds via their droppings. Amazingly, seeds can pass unharmed through an animals gut and appear out the other end together with its own supply of nutrients.
Seeds can be bought from:
You can even harvest your own seeds from previous crops such as poppies, peas and sunflowers or in fact any plant that has flowered or fruited.
Using seeds to grow your plants can be very satisfying and is very easy providing you have the time, climate and space. Seeds are relatively inexpensive to buy so it doesn’t really matter if a few don’t germinate into seedlings. Planting seeds directly outdoors is easy but if the weather in your local area is too dry, too wet or too cold germination can be slow or might not occur at all. Seeds need moisture and warmth to germinate and once the seedlings start to show leaves they will need sunlight as well. If you have somewhere indoors to germinate the seeds such as a warm greenhouse, sunroom or sunny window then it is a simple job to give your plants a head start before transplanting them to the outside world.
Unfortunately you can’t do this with some plants, especially root vegetables, which will suffer if you transplant them. The crops they produce can end up stunted, deformed or may even die. It is safer to sow these seeds directly into their outside seed bed and hope the weather won’t be too harsh. Even then there are simple tricks you can try to give your root crops an advantage.
Warm the soil before planting by covering with black plastic sheet. This will absorb the sun’s warmth and transfer it to the soil. Do this a few weeks before sowing; replace the sheet after sowing until the seedlings appear, water vapour from the soil will condense on the sheet and return to the soil. When the seedlings appear, cover with a raised transparent shelter to provide warmth and protect from the weather and birds.
Buying seeds offers the widest choice of flower and vegetable varieties with variations in colour, size, disease resistance and hardiness.
Some plants are not grown from seed at all but from tubers, bulbs, corms and rhizomes, collectively known as geophytes, which are the plant’s swollen underground parts. Examples of these are potatoes, onions, shallots, daffodils, tulips and many more. For the purposes of this discussion we will treat these as being the same as seed.
As mentioned earlier, some plants reproduce from swollen underground roots that divide and produce a new plant. At the end of the growing season, if they are not harvested, these plants will lose their leaves above ground and reabsorb the nutrients back into their roots. In this state they can lie dormant throughout the winter until the warm spring sun reawakens them. These then do not require planting out every year, unless you harvest them.
Geophytes can be bought like seeds and from the same sources. They only require planting underground before the winter arrives for them to sprout the following spring.
When the seeds start to sprout they are called seedlings and are sold in small paper cartons or plugs. Hence the common name of ‘plug plants’. They are usually grown and sold in small trays with individual compartments. They can be bought from nurseries, garden centres and from mail order seed companies. Buying seedlings can be useful where space is limited or conditions dictate that it is either not convenient or possible to raise them from seed yourself. These plants are very good value for money but are delicate and will need to be looked after from the moment you receive them. They will need potting and watering and placing in a warm situation. This is even more so if the seedlings have just arrived in the mail.
You can buy these from nurseries and mail order companies. They arrive individually and will be in their own small pot. Buying these allows the gardener to bypass the time consuming growing from seed or gives them the opportunity to try growing plants that are normally too difficult for the amateur to grow from seed. If your growing space is limited and you have only space for one or two melon or tomato plants then it makes sense to buy these rather than raise a tray full of seedlings. It can be difficult to buy young plants by mail order as you cannot inspect them prior to purchase. They will need to be healthy and strong looking with bright green leaves and well-watered soil. Gently lift the soil plug out of the pot and check the roots are not cramped and pot-bound. If they are then replant into a larger pot and plant outside as soon as the weather conditions are favourable.
Most types of fruit grow on trees and shrubs. These can either be bought in pots and containers all the year round and then replanted either in the ground or into larger pots or bought as ‘bare-root’ plants which are sold when dormant in the winter and planted before they start to sprout leaves.
Garden centres will provide container grown fruit whereas ‘bare-root’ trees and shrubs are usually available by mail order or from specialist nurseries.
Make sure that any fruit tree you buy is certified as disease resistant and has been grafted onto a suitable rootstock. When buying your fruit trees ensure that they are self-fertile otherwise you will have to buy a companion to ensure pollination occurs.
Types of crop available to buy: All vegetables are available. Root crops are best grown from seed as they do not like to be transplanted. Most annual (they die at the end of the growing season) flowers are available. The only fruit worth growing from seed are alpine strawberries, the remainder of fruit types require a few years to mature before the fruit is ready to harvest.
Pros: Easily bought from mail order companies. Seeds are very cheap and if unused can be stored in cool and dry conditions for several years. Sowing seeds allows you to control numbers and gives the ability to sow little and often to suit demand. They provide great value for money and are available for a varied range of crops.
Cons: Seeds take time to germinate and grow. If sown outdoors they are a potential food source for birds and small rodents. If sown indoors, they require trays and pots and enough space to allow access to sunshine and warmth.
Types of crop available to buy: Fruits are not usually available in plugs but most vegetables are available especially those that are planted in bulk such as lettuce, cabbage and other leafy vegetables. Root vegetables are not usually available as seedlings.
Pros: These are quicker and more convenient than sowing seed as the seedlings have already been germinated thinned out and weaker seedlings disposed of. Plugs save time when planting compared to trays and make best use of space. You can buy the exact number required, knowing that they have grown past the delicate germination stage.
Cons: The range of plants available is limited when compared to seed because the nursery has to concentrate on plants that are most popular and will give them the best return. In the nursery seedlings will probably have been grown in ideal conditions indoors. When you bring them home they will need careful handling, re-potting, and acclimatisation to their new conditions otherwise you might lose them. Seedling plants, or “plugs”, save valuable time and cost less than young plants.
Types of crop available to buy: Lots of choice. Vegetables and fruits include strawberries, rhubarb, tomatoes, sweet peppers, chili peppers, cucumbers. Flowers include annual bedding plants as well as flowering bulbs etc.
Pros: Larger plants give you an instant garden and save the time and space needed to germinate, grow and thin out seedlings. Sun and heat loving plants are best bought as young plants if you have no room to sow and grow indoors. They can be bought from nurseries and garden centres after the frosts have finished and the ground is warm enough to plant outside. These are a good idea if you only want a few of these plants rather than trays of seedlings.
Cons: This is a relatively expensive way to grow flowers and vegetables unless you just want a few of each kind. There are not many different types available as the nursery has to concentrate on popular varieties to get the maximum return on their investment. The young plants need to be acclimatised to the outside before being planted out so it’s best not to buy too many too soon or you won’t have enough room indoors to keep them.
Types of crop available to buy: You can buy all fruit trees and shrubs in pots or as bare-root varieties. If you want ‘instant fruit’ then buy mature plants for best effect.
Pros: Bare-root varieties are cheaper and offer a wider range of trees grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks. Container-grown trees and shrubs are available everywhere, do not need to be planted straight away and can be planted at any time of the year or can be kept in suitable sized containers.
Cons: Bare-root plants are only sold in the dormant season of winter and early spring and must be planted before the sap starts to rise. Potted trees are more expensive, with fewer varieties available. Last year’s stock can be pot-bound if not looked after properly. Buy fruit trees and shrubs in attractive pots and containers for an ‘instant garden’.
Plants and their seeds cost varying amounts of money depending on the rarity or demand of each species and how long the plant has been looked after by the nursery. In general seeds are the cheapest to buy and depending on the type of plant, you can get packets of seeds with anything from 5 to 100 seeds. Although some plants are quite expensive, in general the following costs are indicative of the vast majority of purchases. Don’t forget you will also need pots, seed compost and soil to germinate your seedlings.
|Seeds. Per packet||$2|
|Geophytes. each||$3 to $25|
|Young plant. Per plant||$0.50 minimum|
|Mature plant. Per plant||$2.50 to $5 minimum|
|Plastic garden plant & seed label stakes. 150 pack||$15|
|Clay plant pots. 3”x 2.5”. pack of 25||$25|
|Clay plant pots. 5”x5.5”. each||$10|
|Potting soil. 16 Quart. Organic||$6|
|Potting soil. 1.5 cubic feet. Organic||$45|
|Compost (cow manure). 50 lb||$150|
|John Innes No 2 Potting on compost. 10L||$50|
We have now covered what types are available and the advantages and disadvantages of buying plants at each of its growth stages. What next?
Really you can start your garden at any stage in a plants lifecycle or even mix and match depending on quantity, ease of growth and severity of your climate. It really depends on how much of your limited time and resources you are willing to give up. If you work during the week then your spare time will be evenings and weekends whereas if you are retired you have as much time as you wish to devote to your new hobby.
As stated earlier, almost any plant can be started from seed or geophyte, but today we are interested in what makes it practical or otherwise to raise the plant from seed.
Firstly we must consider your local climate. Although you can grow almost any vegetable crop or flower in any part of the world using natural or artificial means, the factor which has most effect is the length of your growing season and this means how much sunshine you normally have. Some areas which have a short season will not have enough time to be able to grow a fully ripened fruit or plant if you were to grow them outside and from seed. Tomato plants are a good example of this. If you live in a temperate zone, it will be impossible to grow them outside from seed as there is just not enough time to go from seed stage to fully ripened fruit. In this case you would buy a young plant as early as possible and keep it inside until the weather has really warmed up and the plant has reached a certain stage of maturity.
Most obstacles to do with climate and germination can be overcome by transplanting seedlings. Inconsistent germination, lengthy germination, thinning requirements and other germination requirements can be overcome by starting the seeds indoors.
For example some seeds take a long time to germinate but once germination has occurred they grow quite fast. Basil is an example of this type of plant. It has small, hard coated seeds which can take up to three weeks to germinate. Once it starts to grow it is usable almost immediately so climate rarely prevents the crop from growing, it is the germination period which is the problem. If the seeds are grown outside it will be difficult to keep the soil and moisture conditions suitable for germination over such a long period of time and will be difficult to prevent weeds from smothering the newly sprouted seedlings. Another problem is that tiny seeds are more difficult to sow evenly which means thinning is required in the garden which would be unnecessary indoors.
With some plants, seeding may not be necessary or may even be impossible. Some perennial vegetable crops such as rhubarb are available in seed form but are very rarely used because they are more readily grown using root crowns from previously grown mature plants. These dormant crowns are sold and planted in the winter and may already be two or three years old when they get to you. This means the plants are already mature and able to be harvested within a growing season.
Plants grown from tubers such as potatoes and sweet potatoes are grown from tissue rather than seeds. This means that an old potato, having started to sprout ‘eyes’ will be cut into sections, each section having one or two ‘eyes’. The ‘eyes’ are where the new plant will grow. Tap rooted vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, turnips and beets are best sowed outside as transplanting often causes crop failure or root deformations.
Possibly the greatest consideration whether to sow or transplant is one of convenience. When seeds are not available, you can buy transplants, root crowns, onion sets, seed potatoes or other similar crops. If you buy seeds, sow the ones indoors that you able, where you can easily control the growing conditions. If you have limited indoor space or you are less worried about growing conditions then direct sow to outside as much as possible. Luckily all the research has already been done by experts and if you follow the instructions on the packet with regards to planting times, watering, feeding and sunlight you can’t go wrong and will end up with a good crop.
As stated earlier, to grow plants from seed you have to control the conditions under which the seed will best germinate and then continue to provide enough moisture, warmth, sunlight and food throughout its life.
Usually this means sowing indoors or in a heated greenhouse or sunroom. Cold-frames and unheated greenhouses are only suitable for allowing the seedling to acclimatise before planting out or for permanently protecting plants from the extremes of weather such as cold winds and too much rain.
The seeds will either need trays about 2 inches deep or trays with individual compartments to produce plugs.
Seeds like to germinate in well-drained soil so either mix horticultural sharp sand (not building sand which may contain lime or beach sand which will contain salt) and potting soil or compost in equal amounts or buy ready mixed compost specifically designed for seedlings.
When you plant seeds and small plants, always label them so you know what plants they are and where they have been planted. You can buy simple plastic label stakes on which you write with marker pen.
You will need something to cover the trays to keep the light out, keep the heat in and keep the soil damp. Black plastic sheet is ideal for this until the seeds have germinated, after which replace the opaque sheet with clear plastic. This will allow the sunlight through, keep the warmth in and provide a surface for evaporated moisture to condense on and return to the soil.
As the plants get larger, gently lift the soil plug containing the root and transfer into a larger pot. Take care not to disturb the root ball and once it is planted, water well to bed the root.
The pot will require drainage so make sure it has holes at its base and there is drainage material at the bottom of the pot. Small pieces of broken pottery or pebbles are good for this as are small lumps of expanded polystyrene packaging.
At this stage you can mix the potting compost with water retaining gel crystals. This will allow the soil to retain more water and reduces the problem of allowing your pots to accidentally dry out.
If the plant is of the type that needs something to cling to or needs support, such as a climber or a vine then push a stick about 12 inches long into the soil next to the plant, taking care not to damage the roots. Sometimes the growing plant will naturally cling to this or sometimes you will have to use loosely tied string to support the stem against the stick.
To conserve water, and keep the warmth in you can cover the plant with a clear polythene bag making sure the edges are tucked within the pot rim so any condensed water will run back into the soil. Make sure that you remove the bag or leave holes in the polythene when the plant starts to produce flower buds or insect pollinators won’t be able to find their way to the flower and you won’t have any fruits produced.
When the plant has grown some more and the weather has become more predictable and warmer, you can transplant the young plants outside in the prepared beds. Leave the required amount of space between the individual plants (the seed packet will tell you what this is) to allow them to grow and establish their own space.
Regularly check the plants and leaves for any trace of blight, leaf discolouration or insect pests. Remove the affected leaves and give the plants suitable nutrients to allow it to withstand the pests.
When the flowers emerge, the plant will need additional nutrients. Either a homemade organic liquid feed or a general purpose liquid feed (liquid tomato feed, suitably diluted is good for any fruiting plant).
Whenever you re-pot a plant at any stage in its lifecycle you must always add enough water to blend the new and old soil.
Do I have to buy the proper equipment? This sounds expensive!
Luckily seeds and plants won’t mind what you put them in as long as their requirements are being met.
In place of seed trays you can use cardboard or polystyrene food trays previously washed.
To replace plant pots, use plastic yoghurt or cream containers, or maybe some waxed paper cups with a few drainage holes punched in the bottom.
Rather than buy expensive horticultural opaque plastic sheet, why not try opaque supermarket carrier bags or black bin liners?
Clear polythene sheet can be replaced by ordinary household cling film or freezer bags.
Water retaining gel is used within baby’s disposable diapers. Simply cut open one of these and use the silica gel found within (make sure the baby hasn’t used it yet!).
You can easily make good quality liquid fertiliser by steeping nettles or comfrey in water until the liquid has turned a deep green. Decant the liquid into a bottle and add a cupful to a watering can full of water when you need to feed your plants.
Keep old flower pots and plug trays from one year to the next and keep recycling for as long as possible.
Egg cartons are good for making plug trays. If the cartons are made from cardboard or compressed paper then you don’t even need to lift the plug out or the tray. Simply plant the cardboard cup in the ground and allow it to decompose naturally.
If your garden is only a patio or paved area, plant your flowers and vegetables in large flat pots, old rubber car tyres brightly painted and filled with earth or discarded sinks and baths. If your garden is lacking in ground area, but has walls and fences surrounding it, use the height as a planting area. Use hanging baskets suspended from brackets, fix rows of cheap plastic rainwater guttering to the walls and plant lettuce or radishes inside.
Mint is a useful kitchen herb but unfortunately can be extremely invasive. Cut the bottom out of an old plastic bucket and sink this in the ground. Planting the mint within the bucket will keep the roots restrained.
Rather than buy plastic label stakes, try cutting strips about 3 inches long by 1 inch wide from a plastic milk or drink bottle.
There are many cheaper alternatives to the expensive equipment found in garden centres. All you have to do is use your imagination.
Don’t worry if you don’t use all the seeds in a packet this year, you can save them until the next growing season as long as you store them correctly. As we said earlier, “A seed needs moisture and warmth to germinate”. Take away the moisture and the warmth and the seed will stay exactly how it is for a few years at least.
Generally those seeds that have high oil content can be stored for the shortest time. Seeds are best stored through the winter at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and at less than 50% humidity. Viable seeds have been found sealed inside earthenware jars on Ancient Roman archaeological sites. The oldest viable immature seeds found were buried below permafrost in Siberia. Their age has been carbon dated as 31, 800 ±300 years old. The oldest viable mature seed found is that of a Judean Date Palm and is dated as approximately 2000 years old. The seeds produced plants which eventually fruited.
A simple way to store seeds (keep them in their packets or label them) is to store them in a tightly fitting sealed jar with some rice grains at the bottom. Store the jar in a refrigerator or in a cold basement or even in the freezer. The rice will absorb any moisture and can be used again and again just by drying the grains in a low temperature oven.
Lots of common flower and vegetable seeds can be stored in this way so you need never dispose of unused seeds again. The following is an indication of the minimum storage life of some common seeds. With luck and skill it will be possible to keep seeds for much longer.
|Seed||Minimum storage life (years)|
|Runner, French & Broad beans, Peas||2|
|Cabbage, Cauliflower, Brussel Sprouts etc||3 to 5|
|Leeks, Onions & Shallots||2 to 3|
|Melons, Courgettes, Cucumber & Squash||3|
|Annual Flower Seed||1 to 3|
|Perennial Flower Seed||2 to 4|
When you are buying seeds, always look at the date stamp on the packet and choose the ones with the longest shelf life. It is common practice to place the oldest product to the front on display shelves to ensure stock rotation. You can use this to your advantage by always picking your choice from the rear of the display.
Flowers and vegetables grown from geophytes naturally die back and store their energy in the underground roots. At the end of the growing season, geophytes will have formed additional roots which will be the basis of new plants in the following year.
Some people leave geophytes underground and allow them to spread naturally while other people prefer to dig them up, split them into individual plants and store them in a dry, cool place until the following year. By careful splitting and replanting you can start with one geophyte and finish with hundreds after a few years.
It means that there are advantages and disadvantages to growing your own plants from seed or buying your plants at various stages in its life.
The price of each plant is dictated by:
It makes sense therefore to grow your own from seed if you possibly can. Unfortunately most people don’t know where to start, have a go and then become discouraged when their seedlings fail to germinate. Is it any wonder that garden centres do such a good trade to those of us who are unable to grow from seed? Most of us live in modest houses with little or no garden space, and certainly nowhere warm to keep trays and trays of seedlings. Most of us don’t really think about what they will plant in the garden until spring comes, and then it is too late to start germinating seed.
We go to the garden centre and buy ready germinated plants in the form of plugs, young plants, mature plants, trees and shrubs. We plant them in the ground and hope they will be alive when the next dry weekend comes around and we have some spare time to admire our new plants.
Seeds will always be the cheapest option in cash terms but the most expensive in time and equipment. Young and mature plants will always be most expensive in cash terms but when planted will immediately produce a vibrant and colourful garden potentially full of produce when the harvest comes.
If you grow seeds you will know exactly how they have been grown and looked after. You will know if they have been organically grown or not. Plants bought from the garden centre will probably have been grown using non-organic methods simply for convenience and because it is cheaper.
Whatever you choose will be what is best for you and your circumstances. Do you want a hobby to fill your days once you have retired or do you want an instant garden where the children can play and you can have barbeques when the weather is fine? Have you enough money to spend on flowering plants that someone else has grown or are you growing vegetables to save on food shopping or to sell and supplement your income?
Have you always wanted a subtropical garden but live in a temperate zone? It can be done but it will be expensive. Most of the plants will have been imported and looked after for many years by the nursery until ready to be sold. They will be expensive; you probably have no idea how to nurture these unusual plants so you leave it to the experts. The pleasure gained from these exotic plants is probably worth the extra cost in the long term.
Whether you choose to grow your own plants from seed or buy young and mature plants from someone else, a garden is always a pleasure to enjoy. Whether you enjoy working the land or just sitting amongst the flowers on a warm summer day with a glass of wine watching the children play, you can be sure that a garden will give pleasure to your family for many years.