seeds and seedlings

Seeds or Seedlings

Both have their attractions, but which will work best for you, seeds or seedlings?

So you’ve got your garden laid out, all the beds and containers filled with the perfect soil, and a vision of your future garden firmly painted in your mind. Where to from here? Do you order a box full of seed, go down to your local garden centre for a boot full of seedlings, or do something in between? Well, there are things to be said of starting with either seeds or seedlings.


Seeds are mystical, magical, wonderful things, full of potential and so incredibly rewarding to grow. Just do the old bean-in-cotton-wool experiment with a child to remind yourself of their allure. From a tiny speck in your palm you can grow a whole plant – a packet of seed weighs just a few grams but contains a future garden. The best thing about seeds is the variety available to gardeners. Go onto one of the online seed suppliers and you will be mesmerised. Their catalogue is a worm hole down which you can disappear for hours – you go on looking for some kale seeds and emerge three hours later with a cart full of 6 different kale varieties, 12 watermelons, 4 carrots, a million different tomatoes and enough corn to fill the empty farms of Zimbabwe. It is addictive.

Then you have the excitement of opening the package and sorting through your library of little envelopes, the delight of seeing sprouts pushing through the dark soil, the first true leaves appearing, and the daily growth into edible plants. Seeds are also economical, and a great thing to share with a neighbour or a community – you can buy 50 different packets of seeds and share them with your four closest gardening friends and you still all have more than enough seeds for your needs, all for a song. The main downside of seeds is the delayed gratification – they do take longer to get going than seedlings, and you need to give them the attention they need to ensure they germinate successfully. But if you get organised, you can start sowing seeds in seed trays a couple of weeks before you need them in your garden, in which case you’re never caught short with an empty bed.

Some seeds do better if started in this way, while others should be sown directly into the bed they will mature in. This does all take experience to get right, but these days you can tap into other people’s experience quickly and easier and save yourself from learning things the hard way.


The attraction of seedlings is obvious: they’re ready to go, so you get full-grown plants much more quickly than if you start from seed, but they’re much cheaper than if you buy full-grown plants (more applicable if you’re buying herbs or fruit-bearing plants than leafy greens). Seedlings are generally pretty fail-safe, less prone to suffering from fungal issues than germinating seedlings, and its unlikely that pests will decimate them overnight too. There are downsides though: seedlings are far more expensive than seeds, yes, but the real shortcoming is the lack of variety.

If you look at the seedlings at even the very best garden centre, the variety is limited to what they can quickly and easily sell, because seedlings pass their sell-by date quickly. You’re likely to find at most a couple of different varieties of each plant type: kale, cabbage, spinach, tomato, lettuce etc. If you want something particular, especially if it’s a bit different, you’ll have to track down a specialist grower or resort to seeds. And if you only want to plant heirloom varieties, you will battle to find them in seedling form. The answer? You don’t have to choose between one or the other.

Get things going quickly with seedlings of the basic, easily available plants. Then buy seeds of the more exciting plants and get them going in seed trays, ready for when your garden needs them. Seedlings are also great to fill empty spots in your garden if something dies unexpectedly or goes to seed and needs to be removed.

Seedling buying tips

When buying seedlings, don’t just buy the biggest ones you can find. Take a few minutes to decide which ones look best. Look out for yellowing leaves, insect damage, plants that look too big for their little pots, and roots growing out of the bottom of the pots. All of these may indicate that the plants aren’t as healthy as they should be. Leggy plants and those with drying off or browning leaves should also be avoided.

Our seed sowing mix

If you’re starting seeds in seed trays or small pots, use this soil mix: Mix together equal parts of palm peat (hydrate first in a bucket of water), perlite and vermiculite. All are available from hardware stores or garden centres. Moisten the mix if necessary. Fill your seedling pots with this homemade mix, add seeds, and sprinkle a thin layer over your seeds if they need to be covered.

The Gardener