What's the Difference Between Sowing Seeds and Planting Starts?

Here's how to decide which propagation method is best for you.

When you start any kind of garden, you'll quickly realize you have to make a variety of decisions. First, you have to consider and choose where and what you will grow. Once you know which vegetables, herbs, or flowers you want to plant where, you'll have to figure out whether you want to grow them from seeds or from starts (also known as seedlings or transplants).

Some plants do better when they are grown from seed and planted directly in the soil, while others do just fine when transplanted as starts. Deciding what to do often comes down to your preferences, comfort level, the amount of time you have, the region you live in (short or longer growing season), and how much you want to spend.

Both seeds and starts offer benefits and downsides:

  • Buying seeds can be a lot of fun as you search through online or physical seed catalogs, or browse the aisle at your local garden nursery. Whatever you want to plant, whether it's tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, or sunflowers, there are many varieties to choose from. It can be easy to get lost in so many options.
  • Purchasing starts is exciting, too, especially when browsing to see what plants and varieties are available. You may be inspired to choose some veggies or herbs that weren't on your radar or initially part of your plans. But with starts, you'll have a more limited selection to choose from.

Here are some pros and cons for buying seeds or starts to help you decide what is right for you:

Pros for starting from seeds:

planting seeds in a garden bed
  • Less expensive: You can purchase seed packets for usually half the cost of one plant so if you're looking to save money or don't want to spend heaps on your new garden, seeds are the more affordable option.
  • More choice: You'll have access to a bigger selection of an array of seeds and distinct varieties. And you can pick and choose from different seed companies.
  • Experience the whole life cycle: One of the highlights of starting your garden with seeds, is you get to participate in the entire process from sowing the seed to germination to growing into a sizable plant to harvest.
  • Some plants do better when grown directly from seed: Root vegetables, such as beets, carrots, kohlrabi, radishes, and arugula or lettuce typically do better when they're planted directly into the soil instead of being started in one container and then moved to another area.

Cons for starting from seeds:

  • Time: Seeds take time. Some plants will take a week to sprout while others can take closer to a month. Then they need more time to grow to establish their roots before you can transplant them to another pot or garden bed.
  • Space: Growing seeds takes up a lot of room so plan accordingly when planning out your garden and what you want to grow.
  • Timing: It's important to know when to start sowing seeds so the conditions are optimal for them to germinate and thrive. Sometimes this can be tricky but this is when knowing the average last frost date for your region can help guide you in figuring out when to start planting seeds. You may need to start seeds indoors.
  • Not all will sprout: No matter how much you plan and how careful and meticulous you are with sowing seeds, there are a lot of variables that will influence the outcome. Even with sufficient sunlight, adequate water, nutrient-rich soil, and having the weather and temperatures in mind, there will be some seeds that simply don't emerge. This can occur for many reasons. You may need to sow seeds more than once.
  • Learning curve: Like with any new hobby or skill, there's a lot to figure out, often by trial and error. There are plenty of variables with gardening so be prepared; even in optimal conditions things may not go as you hoped or planned.

Pros for planting starts:

woman looking at rosemary herb seedlings in greenhouse nursery
  • Gives you a head start: When you buy transplants, you're jumping ahead in the growing cycle because starts are usually ready to be planted in the garden right away.
  • Buy only what you need: Once you know what you want to grow and have space for, then you can buy the right amount of plants.
  • Grown for the region: When you buy from a local nursery, the plants are grown for the region you live in, which means you don't need to second guess if the variety you're choosing will do well or not.
  • Some plants do better when grown from starts: Some plants do better and/or do well when transplanted. These include brassicas such as broccoli, cauliflower, and kale; and plants from the nightshade family including tomatoes and peppers.
  • Short growing season: If you live in a region where the growing season is relatively short, buying starts will give you an advantage to get your garden planted quickly to maximize the warmer weather.

Cons for planting starts:

  • Cost more: Buying seedlings is more expensive than buying seed packets. That's because someone has spent time to care and tend to the seeds to ensure they germinate and become small, healthy plants ready for a new home.
  • Limited variety: What you see in seed catalogs is almost always a wider variety compared to what's available as seedlings. Nurseries sell plants that are common favorites and grow well for the climate and area. If you want to experiment with curious varieties or heirloom types, it's unlikely you'll find much of a selection of starts in the average nursery.
overhead shot of packet of plant seeds and a plant seedling

The bottom line:

Sometimes the best option may be to mix and match. There are so many factors that will help guide you on what makes the most sense for your garden needs each season. One year you may have more time and patience to focus all your time and effort on sowing and caring for your seeds, while other times, you may prefer to just get a jump start by purchasing exactly what you need.


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