One of the main attractions for me of growing my own vegetables is in starting as much as possible from seed. In the long, narrow garden of my end-of-terrace house (roughly 30 x 3m) I have space for a small, unheated greenhouse which, along with a heated mat that fits on my kitchen windowsill, makes sowing just about everything I need for my allotment and garden possible. Sometimes this means spending part of every spring morning and evening moving trays of seedlings out of and into the house so they don’t get too cold in the greenhouse overnight, but I can manage that and I enjoy the process of growing from seed so much the little bit of extra effort is well worth it.
Not everyone can fit a greenhouse into their garden, though, and not everyone has the space indoors or the time needed for a lot of seed sowing. If this is your situation and you want to grow your own veg, you can still do it without having to sow a lot of seeds because many of the things you might want to grow can be bought either as plants in the garden centre or as plug plants from companies who sell online. Even if you can grow some things from seed, buying plants can still be a good option if you only want to grow one or two plants of something or have left it too late to get seeds underway. The drawback is that it can work out to be expensive, sometimes costing you more than buying the same amount of veg in a supermarket, which takes some of the edge off growing your own. So, here are some tips on when it might be worth buying vegetable plants and when you might want to try to avoid it.
Buying veg plants in the garden centre
Most garden centres stock a good range of vegetables, and they’re very good at getting their stocks in just at the time you want to plant them. The range of varieties might be limited compared to buying seeds, but in larger centres you can expect to find a reasonable amount of choice. It might be worth finding out when they expect deliveries and getting your plants soon after they arrive, unless you know your local garden centre is good about watering and caring for the plants they stock.
As ever, it’s also important to check the plants you’re buying for any signs of diseases such as mould or yellowing leaves which could indicate other problems that might affect their growth later on.
Veg worth buying as plants in a garden centre
Generally, buying plants is best for the types of vegetables you grow in small numbers or for anything that’s harder to grow from seed, perhaps because it needs an early start, needs heat or because the plants grow fast and need a lot of space. It’s also useful for vegetables where the seeds themselves can be expensive, such as new varieties or hybrids.
Tomatoes – you might only need a couple of plants and by buying them you could grow two different varieties (a cherry and a larger fruited variety for cooking, for example). Also, you need heat to get seeds started and it’s best done early (late February or March) as plants take time to mature and start fruiting. They grow quickly, too and have to be kept somewhere that’s not just frost free but reasonably warm and light. Cucumbers, aubergines and peppers can also be worth buying as plants for similar reasons.
Sweetcorn – these are often sold as multi sown seedlings in modules which might only cost around £3 and contain around 25-30 plants. A packet of seeds would cost about the same and give you around the same number of plants. The seedlings transplant easily and grow quickly so it’s well worth getting these if you have an allotment or big vegetable patch in your garden.
Courgettes – one plant can feed a family if it’s cropping well so buying a plant might be the easiest way to get your supply. Like tomatoes, courgettes grow quickly and need to be protected from frosts and the seeds, while inexpensive, don’t stay viable for long which means that if you don’t use them all within a couple of years they might not germinate and will be wasted. Incidentally, if you end up with more than one plant and start to become inundated by courgettes I can recommend a good recipe book (the brilliantly named ‘What will I do with all those courgettes?’).
Vegetables best grown from seed
Brassicas – cabbages, kale, broccoli and Brussel sprouts. Seeds of all these vegetables are cheap and they can be sown outside (either in modules with a bit of protection or directly in the soil) or in a cold greenhouse from early in the year. They’re easy to raise and, with the possible exception of kale which crops for months and can be very ornamental, I suspect you’re more likely to be growing them if you’ve got an allotment or veg patch than if you’re restricted to a balcony or patio, so you’ll probably want at least two or three plants of each type, perhaps more. The seeds last a long time, too, so leftover seed can be sown in the following years.
Runner beans, climbing French beans, dwarf French beans and peas – even if you’re growing these in a pot you’ll usually want quite a few of these and seeds are relatively cheap. They can all be sown directly into the soil if you don’t have room for indoor sowing, although for the beans you’ll need to wait until frosts have passed before you sow. The only caveat is that if every single one of your carefully raised bean plants gets eaten by slugs as soon as you plant them out (which has happened to me more than once) then buying mature plants to replace them then becomes a good idea.
Carrots, beetroot, chard, lettuces and definitely radishes. You should really think twice before buying any of these. The seeds are very cheap, they come up quickly and they can be sown outside when it’s still cold (from March or April) so you could easily sow them yourself in a pot or direct in the soil. It can easily cost more than £3 for a pot or a few modules containing 20-30 carrot seedlings when a packet of 500 seeds could cost £2. Carrots, which have a tap root, don’t transplant very easily either.
With the rise of the internet, plug plants have really taken off as an option and can be a brilliant halfway house between sowing seeds and buying larger plants. They offer more choice of variety than garden centre plants and tend to arrive after the risk of frost has passed so you can put them outside almost straight away. They have a few specific drawbacks, though. In my previous job I used to order large numbers of plug plants so unfortunately I’m all too familiar with the problems.
This varies enormously. Some companies send out well developed plugs that are carefully packaged and protected from damage in the post. Other companies don’t always manage that. I’ve received far too many plugs that were dried out, that had yellow leaves because they’ve been trapped in the dark in their packaging for so long, or that have been shaken loose from their packaging and look like they’ve done several rounds in a tumble drier. Needless to say, plugs like that rarely survive.
Although plug plant prices would usually work out higher than the price of seeds, they can be good value given the convenience they offer. Remember you’ll have to pay postage charges, though, and that these can add a disproportionate amount to the cost of the plugs if you only want a few. The value gets better if you order more plugs, so try to order everything you need from the same supplier.
One of the big problems with plug plants can be the timing of delivery. There are one or two suppliers who let you choose the week of delivery, but they’re in the minority, especially with vegetables. It’s best to order early if you want to get your plug plants at the time you need them, but unfortunately ordering early doesn’t guarantee timely delivery and some plug plants might not arrive till half way through June. These are going to be very late giving you a crop, if they manage it at all.
Choose your plug plant supplier carefully and go with recommendations from veg buying friends if possible. Maybe you can combine an order and save even more!
In my next post, I’ll be writing about the pros and cons of direct sowing compared to sowing under cover.
Categories: Grow veg