Starter Plants or Direct Sow?

I was at our local garden center the other day with a gardening friend, Sue. We marveled over the 4" double impatiens, "ooohed" and "aaahed" at the hanging basket of fuchsias that looked like dancing ballerinas, and made jokes about the extensive, but wonderful, choices of hot peppers.

direct sow

As we neared the back of the greenhouse, we came to the area filled with plastic cells packs of seedlings. Now, before I start ranting, I must disclose that I had more than a couple of flats of starter plants in my cart before the day's end, but there were things I would not buy in the seedling stage, as there are many herbs, veggies, and flowers that just don't transplant well.

When Sue picked up a 6-pack of parsley, she didn't realize she was about to receive a lecture. She is a good gardener and sows seed often, so I was surprised by her choice. Parsley is one example of a plant that doesn't transplant well. Parsley grown in a warm greenhouse, and then transplanted into a cool garden can often go into shock and bolt. The dramatic change in temperature makes the plant think it is fall and should focus its energy into seed production instead of leaf production. Parsley is a cool-season herb that germinates well in cool soil, and then grows well in warm soil. It really does best sown directly in the ground in early spring.

But explaining all this to Sue just got me thinking. I noticed cell packs of carrots, lettuce, fennel, squash, corn, and radishes! All of those vegetables are so easy to sow directly in your outdoor garden or container, and frankly, do so much better that way. Transplanted seedlings go through a period of adjustment, which can also lengthen the time it takes them to reach bloom or harvest by a week or more. Some crops are so quick, but the transplant shock can really slow down growing. Other plants have a long taproot that just gets tangled up in a cell pack, and therefore, won't transplant well. Direct sowing is not only easier and better in many cases, it is cheaper!

It is important to understand which crops have an advantage being transplanted versus direct sown, in order to avoid slow, weak, or poor-yielding plants. I explained to Sue that I worry about beginning gardeners that may use these starter plants, then give up when they are not successful. I ranted for a fair amount of time about the pitfalls for new gardeners, when Sue reminded me of the resilient and positive spirit of gardeners. "It's all trial and error. Gardeners never give up. We learn and we grow and then we plan next year's garden." She's right.

Here's a list of plants that perform best when directly sown and are usually faster crops; ones that do not like their roots disturbed, and include all root crops.



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