Planting Seed vs. Using Starts

Before I learned how to start my own seed I found it intimidating. Especially since I had tried a few times and had failures I couldn’t explain. However, as I engaged those failures over the years I started to prefer planting from seed. Once you start, you won’t go back to purchasing nursery-grown starts. 

There are several reasons I avoid nursery-grown starts:

1. Plants directly seeded always do better. Mostly this is because the root system develops a relationship with the biology of the soil immediately and is never moved away. The roots never develop in a small plastic space and get pre-shaped. The go straight down into the ground with little hinderance.

Linaria, Miniature Snapdragon

2. Life in a small container sucks. It’s hotter, drier, and more dead in a small container. There are few beneficial organisms that help plants grow. Your plant doesn’t get to start developing a relationship with the organisms that will eventually feed it (if you are growing organically). If the seedling stays in the container for long, it will need artificial food because organic fertilizers really can’t work in a situation where there is no biology. It’s sort of like living in the front seat of a car. In summer. You can turn on the air conditioning and maybe try to shade yourself, but it’s no way to live.

3. The variety to choose from is greater. With nursery stock you are subject to the choices of the grower, who is mostly selling whatever they can move off the shelves quick. BORING! If you start growing from seed, your world of options is exponentially larger. You will have heirloom crops available to you that many people might not have even heard of. And don’t assume nurseries offer varieties appropriate for our climate. Almost all Arizona nuseries bring in stock from California as well as Northern Arizona, in places where the climate calls for different varieties. And even when they do offer appropriate varieties, it’s usually the same old stand-bys that leave one bored. This isn’t just true about edibles. There are amazing flowering annuals and perennials that are almost never available in nurseries, including old varieties that aren’t convenient as seedlings to have in nurseries like the 3-foot vining petunias, or the miniature snap dragon (Linaria) which is an amazing annual that is never in the nurseries (and often reseeds itself year after year). 

4. Annuals grown from nursery starts bolt sooner than those seeded direct-seeded annuals. This may go back to the first argument, that seedlings live a tougher life in the beginning and get disturbed a bunch of times. If you don’t believe me, buy some cilantro at a nursery and plant it at the same time you seed it in the ground. Watch the difference. Most nurseries even know better, but still offer such plants in 6-packs or 4-inch pots. If you only go with planting a few things from seed there are a few that always do bad from nursery-grown stock. Cilantro and parsley always bolt way sooner. In fact, any winter annual that flowers at the end of the season (and it’s life) usually bolt way sooner if planted from nursery stock.

5. Growing plants from seed puts you that much closer to the plants. You are participating with them more intimately and therefore becoming a more informed, better gardener. You learn what the seed looks like, how long it takes to germinate, and follow through watching the plant’s whole life cycle.

6. Nursery-grown seedlings generate garbage that go to the landfills. If you grow your own seedlings directly in the ground, that is one less source of plastic garbage you are contributing.

7. Browsing seed catalogs is a wonderful experience. Once you start getting catalogs in the mail, or start browsing online seed catalogs, you will wonder why you deprived yourself so long from this experience.

This isn’t to say I don’t love nurseries, or that there are never reasons to go to nurseries. In fact, people don’t go to the nursery enough. I am only encouraging you to become a better horticulturist because more people growing plants from seed means more varieties, more knowledge and more real gardening going on. Then maybe nurseries will have to step up their game and offer stock that is competitive and appropriate.

The one exception to everything I am saying here is when you are trying to get ahead of the season. Sometimes when you are growing a long-season vegetable, you might start them indoors in a container and transplant them when the frost is over or when the summer cools down. This works with some crops, not with others.


7 thoughts on “Planting Seed vs. Using Starts

  1. I’d be interested to know which seed catalogs you are especially fond of for desert gardens. NS/S gets a lot of dog-earing at my house, but what do you recommend? Maybe another post entirely?

    • I use all kinds of catalogs. I love Native Seed SEARCH, but there are lots of other sources. Seed Savers Exchange is great. I love Kitazawa Seed in the bay area for Asian vegetables. Seeds Of Italy is a favorite of mine. I order a ton of seed from Territorial Seed too. But I am always trying out new companies. Especially for specialty things. If you look on my home page I try to link many of these sources.

  2. I had a mixture of seeded and potted plants from nurseries that all started out doing very well but my biggest problem was sun and shade. All my squash and pumpkins got fried in August. Any suggestions? I am going to grow in raised beds on the south side of my property this spring and see if I get better results.

    • Those plants love full sun, even in summer. If they were “fried” it was probably a watering situation or salts (crap in the soil, too much fertilizer, pool water, lots of sources of salts out there).

      Sometimes if the soil doesn’t have enough layers (too much clay and not enough amendment), the plants can’t get enough water to supply all the leaves in the summer. Mulch plants well, especially in raised beds that can dry out quickly.

  3. Hi, so happy to find you!!!! Am a 70 year old new vegetarian lady hoping to have fresh organic produce all year. Will use a combination of raised beds and containers. Have to protect the harvest from bunnies, groundsquirrels, birds, and javalinas (they ate two harvests of greens last year)

    What is a good mulch to use in raised beds here? ..

    We live up in Catalina, so we are a taste cooler than in town, but almost nothing produced for us last year. I am sure it has to do with being a beginner, and watering incorrectly. I still don’t know what’s good for what.

    We do compost and amend the soil before we plant but last year some kind of fungus or disease killed many plants or limited production. Should I take off the sunshades maybe? We did put some sulphur in the soil in the fall.

    Hope you don’t mind a little mentoring for an an old beginner.

    • Hi Gerry,

      Vegetable gardens want full sun. For sure. How are you watering your garden?

      You should probably invest in hardware to protect from the animals more than the sun. You can use small grid hardwire (found at home depot) under the ground. Dig down deep and basically build an underground cage to keep those excavators from hitting your produce from underneath.

      You can then build a framed fence around your garden that will let bees in, but keep squirrels out.

      If you don’t want a fort knox, you will probably have to deal with some losses. I used to manage a garden by Colossal Cave and there were just too many ground squirrels to ignore this, so we went with fort knox.

      Seasons here are so different, you have to find the best local source of information. This is why I started working on this blog.

      The best local book regarding local seasons is Mary Irish’s Month By Month Gardening In The Deserts Of Arizona. Get it here:

      Sulfur is the suggested thing to do for fungus, but I am pretty hard core about never using inorganics. It kills all the good guys too. You just need to inoculate your soil with the good guys. And as you already learned, get rid of the shade cloth. That was your problem.

      I will keep posting about composting (that is where the good guys come from) and if you have any more specific questions, feel free to email me at


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