Seeds of seedlings?

Seeds or seedlings — that was the topic of a recent conversation I had with several fellow Master Gardeners. We were comparing notes on whether we started our plants from seeds or purchased already-started plants and transplanted them into the garden or containers. We also discussed our reasons for our decisions.

Why bother with seeds? The short answer is: cost.

Under ideal conditions, a $2 packet of tomato seed could yield 750 pounds of tomatoes. A half-ounce packet of lettuce seed contains about 1,000 seeds.

If you've been to the supermarket recently, a little math will tell you that seeds are certainly less expensive. On the other hand, if you have a small family, what will you do with 1,000 lettuce plants? Or that many tomatoes? Will the extra seeds simply end up in the garbage can?

The expense of raising plants from seeds does not stop with seed purchase, of course. The cost of heat mats, fluorescent lights, tools, pots and so on must be factored into the decision. And although a greenhouse is not necessary, many people have the idea that it is, and that stops them.

I suspect the greatest deterrent is lack of know-how and/or lack of a suitable seed-starting space. I know gardeners who start their seeds in the bedroom, laundry room or other places in their houses. And yes, a certain amount of know-how is necessary, but that can be learned.

For many of us, the driving reason to start plants from seed is to see whether we can do it. Can we coax a sprout from that notoriously hard-to-germinate petunia seed, which is not much larger than a speck of dust? Can we get those seeds we gathered last fall to grow? Those squash seeds from a friend will supposedly produce wonderful fruit — will they? Just plain curiosity — plus the satisfaction of the process — drives many seed-planters.

But there are pluses to the idea of buying already-started seedlings, too, as my friends and I agreed. A big one is time, especially if you are employed or travel frequently. Seed-starting takes some time — those just-sprouted seeds need attention daily to be sure they'll stay healthy and won't dry out.

A small family, or someone with limited garden space, may want only two tomato plants or a dozen lettuce plants. And if you want those tomatoes and lettuce plants to be from different varieties, that's easily possible.

As I hinted earlier, some seeds can be difficult to start, so if you are a rookie at vegetable gardening, you may enjoy greater success using seedlings. Be sure to buy those that have been raised locally — you are much less likely to get diseased plants, and local plants will thrive in our Rogue Valley climate, too.

Remember that not all plants can be transplanted, notably the root vegetables, like radishes and carrots. They must be sown directly into the soil.

If you are uncertain about how to plant seeds, start by reading the information on the seed packets and the information in seed catalogs. Territorial Seeds in Cottage Grove has an especially informative catalog. And, take a class or two to learn more.

Coming Up: On Thursday, April 8, from 7 to 9 p.m., Marsha Waite, master gardener and Plant Clinic director, will teach a class about what insects you can expect to see in the coming months, and organic controls of the unfriendly ones. The class will be held at the Oregon State University Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. Cost is $5. Call 541-776-7371 for further information.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. E-mail her at

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