The Pleasures Of Growing From Seed... Part 1: Why Grow Seeds?

A Little Paper Cup

I still remember the experiment in kindergarten:  Planting a single bean in a paper cup filled with soil.  We lined them up on the window sill, giving them their daily watering and waited with vague anticipation for... what?  I waited, I grew impatient, I lost interest.  But I was drawn back one day to some faint stirring in the soil.  And then, those first two leaves, those pale and waxy cotyledons stretching out like fists, and then unfurling like tiny hands in happy defiance while roots stretched equally downward somewhere below.  

I loved my bean.  I reveled in its bravery and its mystery.  In some ways, I have come a long way since my paper cup, but my fascination with that little miracle has not.  And I am grateful for that.

Melon seeds germinate and push their way out...

Melon seeds germinate and push their way out...

Decisions, Decisions

As gardeners we are faced with a choice each time we go to plant something in our garden.  Should we plant seeds, or should we plant nursery starts?  It can be a confounding question, and often, it seems we choose starts.  But I would suggest that in doing so, we are missing out on something very special.  The pleasures of growing from seed are many, and so I have taken up the discussion here.  It is such a topic that I have broken it into two blog posts.  Check in next week for Part 2: Methods For Growing From Seed.

Nursery starts were, of course, grown from seeds as well.  But they have lived the beginning of their lives in the safety and care of a greenhouse somewhere.  This makes for a predictable and protective environment where they are free from many of the obstacles that a seed may face when it starts in the ground.  Furthermore, many seeds will not germinate in cold temperatures, and so starting in a greenhouse allows them to be started much earlier in the season than would be possible when planted outside.

So there are some distinctive advantages to planting nursery starts.  Nursery starts are quicker to mature from their planting date, and they have a jump on the weeds.  Both of these advantages should not be underestimated, and it seems to me that most home gardeners choose starts over seeds most of the time.  After all, when you go to your local nursery you are greeted with an abundance of starts.  It often seems easy enough to load up the car with this and that and pop them in the ground, instant garden!

The Mighty Seeds

So why would you grow a garden from seeds?  I will offer a few compelling reasons.  In short, when you grow from seed you save money, you have healthier happier plants, and you have the freedom to choose varieties that you most love and that do well in your garden!

Germinated arugula, radishes, and turnips in one of our raised beds

Germinated arugula, radishes, and turnips in one of our raised beds

Lets break that down:  You save money because seeds are much cheaper than all of the  added costs of growing starts in a greenhouse and the markups of growers, distributors, and nurseries.  Plants grown from seed tend to be healthier because they do not suffer "transplant shock," the unavoidable trauma that happens when plants change environments and when fragile root systems are disturbed during planting.  Lastly, when you buy seeds, you choose the varieties that most suit your taste, your environment, and your needs.  When growing from starts, you are subject to whatever happens to be available at your local nursery, and this can be a frustrating and disheartening experience.

So have you made your decision?  Are you for seeds or starts?  Well the truth is, the best gardens are grown from a combination of both seeds AND starts.  There are different situations, and different specific vegetables, that benefit from one or another approach.  For a list of which vegetables prefer which method, see the table at the conclusion of this blog post.

There are a handful of vegetables that should be grown from starts and shouldn't be grown from seed.  In general, these are the vegetables that take the longest to mature.  Things like Peppers, Tomatoes, and Onions, which require several summer months to reach maturity need every day they can get in our climate.  Getting them started early in the spring in a greenhouse and then planting out starts when temperatures and day length increase gives us the best chance of having a good crop in this climate.  This list also includes crops like Broccoli, Cabbage, Fennel, and Eggplant.

The greenhouse at Gaining Ground Farm in Yamhill, Oregon

The greenhouse at Gaining Ground Farm in Yamhill, Oregon

There are also some vegetables that should be grown from seed and shouldn't be grown from starts.  The most sensitive of these are root crops, especially tap-rooted vegetables like carrots, parsnips, radishes, turnips, and beets.  Tap-rooted plants have extremely sensitive root systems and can be permanently stunted when transplanted.  Other vegetables that are most happy being planted from seed include Beans, Peas, Garlic (from cloves), and Potatoes (from "seed pieces").

And then there are many vegetables that can be grown from either seeds OR starts.  This list is extensive and includes many of the leafy greens, as well as Cucumbers, Squash, Kale, Parsley, and Cilantro to name a few.  These veggies don't have the sensitivities of root crops and don't have the early seeding requirements of tomatoes and peppers.  With these vegetables I encourage people to experiment with both methods and decide what they like best!

I have never been one for dogma in my approach to gardening, and I am very wary of gardeners who suggest that there is one right way to do anything in the garden.  But using some guiding principles and experimenting with seeds can add an amazing depth and dimension to any skill set and any garden.

Here is a list of the annual vegetables that  I recommend growing in raised garden beds with suggestions for planting methods!  Happy growing...

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Now that you are ready to try planting from seed, make sure you check in next week for Part 2: Methods For Growing From Seed to learn about the important things to keep in mind when you are putting those seeds in the ground!