It's always tempting to just walk in a nursery and purchase lovely looking plant starts that are already six inches tall! Why on earth would anyone mess with seeds?
• Cost. One plant can cost you as much as $3-4 in some places! For that same price, you could purchase an entire packet of seeds.
1 tomato plant = $3
25+ tomato seeds (25+ potential plants) = $3
Even if you only use part of the package over a 3 year period, you'll still have saved a ton of money! And if they all fail but a handful? Again, you still have saved money. All you need is to have one successful plant and at the very least, you will have broken even!
There are some initial purchases you may want to make so that your seeds get off to a great start, but there are frugal ways to do this and you don't have to purchase them all at once (more on this later).
• Vermin. Another reason for starting seeds indoors? So you can have nice plants just like the nursery! And so vermin like mice don't eat your little seedlings and dig them up... I've caught 9 so far this spring! Birds will attempt to do the same, but you can cover the bed with bird netting and easily solve that problem. Mice are another problem altogether (see Know Your Enemy).
• Control. When you start seeds indoors, you have much more control over their environment and you can create an "ideal situation" for them to sprout. Of course, sometimes our idea of "ideal" can actually make them less strong, but knowing about these factors allows us to make adjustments. For example, seedlings outdoors are actually strengthened by occasional wind. It causes them to establish a more secure root system. We can mimic that by occasionally running a fan on them. Or placing them outside during a breeze when they are ready to be harded off (a period of transition to eventually remain outdoors permanently).
Unfortunately, not all plants can be started indoors and then transplanted. There are still some plants that must be directly seeded into the ground, such as carrots. As a root crop, their "roots" are very temperamental and they don't take kindly to being "rearranged" in the soil.
• Variety. When you go to the local nursery, you only get so many choices. But with seeds... the sky is the limit! Well, almost. It does give you the ability to select the perfect tomato for your microclimate. In my zone 7 garden, I need short season varieties for anything that is a warm weather crop. A tomato that takes 90+ days to mature won't fully ripen in time to harvest before the first frost because our summers are cooler. Even a variety that matures in 60 days will take longer to produce that ripe gem unless we have a sudden heat wave. Which leads me to...
• Timing. Purchasing plants puts you on the nursery's schedule. However, as you gain experience as a gardener, you can take advantage of all that knowledge you're gleaning and time your seedlings to your schedule and microclimate. For example, we typically get a couple of weeks of hot weather in August. To take advantage of that, I need my tomatoes to be loaded with green fruit in advance so the heat will cause them to turn and finish ripening.
Another timing example... my nursery is located 20 minutes from my house and the micro climate there is 2-3 weeks ahead of my own. I could purchase plants and hold on to them indoors until time to plant, but given the reasons above, I can time my plants to go in my garden when I'm ready on my property.
Finally, most nurseries don't offer vegetable plant starts for fall gardens, only spring. Many things can be staggered throughout the summer and grown into the fall, but unless you have available plants, seeds are the way to go!
Where To Buy Seeds
Each year I get at least 1-2 emails asking which seed company I recommend. And we're blessed that there are many great seed companies to choose from. How do I decide? A few factors I consider include (in order of priority):
• Actively seeks to campaign against GMO seeds
• Actively seeks to save heirloom variaties
• Actively promotes seed saving in general
• Selection (offers a wide variety including heirlooms)
• Catalog is easy to use and gives a good description
• Seed packets have good information printed on back
• Seed company is local (tends to have varieties good for my area)
Reliable Seed Companies
Here are a few that I know meet most of the top priority requirements, although they do not all meet some of the lesser preferences. Finding a local seed company is most difficult, but you could consider your region instead. Below, I've listed some of my favorites and what I like best about them. I've personally used all but Fedco, but friends who do use them are very pleased.
• Baker Creek Heirlooms - strong supporters of non-GMO; great heirlooms
• Seed Savers Exchange - strong supporters of saving heirloom seeds
• Seeds of Change - seeds grown in organic conditions/non-GMO; seeds are in durable zip lock top packets
• Territorial Seed Company - great varieties for winter crops
• Fedco - strongly oppose GMOs; good winter variaties (catalog is B/W, not colorful)
• Botanical Interests - packets loaded with information inside and out; no GMOs
The best time to order seeds in in January, right after the seed catalogs come out. By April, a lot of choice varieties will be sold out. If you can't get what you want this year, call these companies now and ask to be placed on their free mailing list so that you'll be one of the first to get a catalog at the beginning of the year.
Typically, I order from about 3-4 companies each year to get the selection I want. This means a few extra dollars in shipping, but if you share an order with a friend, you can curb the costs on that as well.
Next, I want to talk about actually starting the seeds indoors and a few tips I've learned over the years. In the meantime, I'm sure others would love to hear why you like to start seeds indoors and your favorite seed company and why!
Be sure to see some of my other seed posts:
Organizing Seeds and Planting Records
Make Your Own Seed Reference Cards