Thursday, January 10, 2013

Seeds versus Starts: Warm-season plants

At planting time, you have a choice: seeds or started plants.  Seeds are cheap; you can buy a packet of hundreds for the price of a single start.  They start where they grow, so their roots are never confined or cut; they can’t get root bound.  Seeds will grow into the larger plants, given equal conditions.
Starts seem more certain; seeds have to germinate before they can grow, and this can be a problem when they are broadcast or planted straight into the garden.  If soil temperature isn’t right, seed may not come up at all. 
When it comes to larger seeds, the choice is easy; all of the larger seeds are better planted straight into the garden.  This goes for beans, corn, squash, melons cucumbers, nasturtiums, and morning glories, among others.    
If your large warm-weather vegetable seeds don’t germinate, either the seed is old or the soil is cold; replant.  If you plant a start of one of these vegetable in cold soil, the bugs will eat it; replant seed.  You cannot rush the season, save by pre-warming the soil with rocks or a light gravel mulch.  Even if the seeds germinate, if the soil is cold, they will lose out on critical weeks of early growth and be dwarfed.  Seeds planted a few weeks later will quickly surpass struggling earlier plants.  Starts of curcurbits, corn, and beans are easily root-bound and dwarfed; only the youngest will grow well, even in warm soil.
Tomatoes are normally planted as starts; few people are willing to wait on seed.  Yet tomatoes that volunteer or are planted from seed in the garden will grow faster than starts, and quickly surpass them in growth.  Still, even this gardener is not yet willing to take her chances on starting all of her tomatoes from seed; germination can be iffy from packets, and volunteers are not always dependable.  Still, smaller starts are better than larger ones; a non-blooming 6-pack plant, even root-bound, will surpass a budding 4-inch or gallon plant if you cut the roots. 
Peppers are the only vegetable/fruit that apparently must be started in a greenhouse or otherwise babied in pots until the soil is warm—and it must be quite warm; June is best.  I have never seen a volunteer pepper; their seed apparently rots over the winter.  They are also the exception to the rule of large starts v. small.  A gallon pepper start that is not root-bound will grow faster and survive the bugs better than a 4” pot, unlike tomatoes. 
Flowers are subject to the same rules.  Cosmos is a classic: starts are generally sold in bud or bloom, and they grow only a few flowers before giving out at a foot or so tall, even if deadheaded.  When planted as seed, they start late, grow all summer to 4-5 feet tall, and burst into glorious bloom in early to late fall.

Published at under The Natural Gardener #5.

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