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Start Plants from Seeds or Buy Tomato Seedlings?
The Annual Tomato Growing Dilemma

Since 2010, Tomato Dirt has garnered 4.6+ million views, making it the web’s leading online source for growing tomatoes in the home garden. Award-winning writer and Tomato Dirt owner Kathy Widenhouse has helped thousands of home gardeners grow healthier tomatoes. Be one of them when you get Tomato Dirt’s Growing Guide here.

Posted 1.8.2024

Each year, gardening enthusiasts face a crucial decision: should you start plants from seeds or take the easier route and buy ready-to-plant tomato seedlings?

It’s a longstanding debate among gardeners as to which is “best.” In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve done each.

There have been spring seasons when our sunroom is filled with seedling trays and subsequently, when it’s time for re-potting, all manner of seedling containers from recycled yogurt cups to garden-center purchased quart containers. My husband and I end up with hundreds (literally) of healthy tomato seedlings which we give away to family, friends, and neighbors – and reserve 30-40 for our own garden, of course.

But then other years, we are busy with trips to aging parents and our college children’s away soccer games. Late spring rolls around and we haven’t even purchased tomato seeds. That’s when we do what plenty of other gardeners do: we buy tomato seedlings.

We are not alone with this dual-minded conundrum. Home gardeners are divided. A recent National Gardening Association (NGA) survey reports that 45% of tomato growers prefer starting their plants from seeds, while the remaining 55% buy tomato seedlings.

Like so many others, we have found advantages and disadvantages with both scenarios. And we hope you can learn from our experience as you make your choice this season between starting seeds and buying seedlings.

Start plants from seeds or buy tomato seedlings? with Tomato Dirt #HomeGarden #BeginnerGardening

Start plants from seeds: advantages and disadvantages

1. Advantages

Statistically, growing tomatoes from seeds is more cost-effective than buying tomato seedlings. The average price of a tomato seed packet is $2.50, while a single tomato seedling can cost anywhere between $3 to $5. Even when you include the cost of seed trays (which can be re-used year to year) and seed starting mix, you can save money by starting plants from seeds.

Variety and choice
The thousands of tomato varieties available in seed catalogs are not available through your local garden retailer. The NGA survey reported that 65% of seed-starting enthusiasts prefer choosing unique flavors, sizes, and colors offered in tomato seed catalogs.

Start with a single seed and harvest dozens of luscious fruit just a few months later: there’s nothing like it.

2. Disadvantages

Starting tomato plants from seeds takes time – about 6 weeks of indoor vigilance. You must keep seed starting soil moist and the room temperature consistent. If you go out of town for a few days, who will water your seeds and keep the grow lights just at the right height if seedlings have a growth spurt?

There’s no way around it: if you start seeds, you need to get your hands dirty. And the mess is not relegated to your outdoor garden. It’s inside your home.

Even under ideal conditions, germination rates for tomato seeds can vary. At least 15% of gardeners experienced issues with inconsistent germination, according to the American Society for Horticultural Science – thanks to temperature, humidity, and soil quality. If you start plants from seeds, be prepared for uneven plant growth and maturity.

Tomato seedlings are susceptible to various diseases during their initial growth phase, particularly damping-off and fungal infections. If you’re not watchful, you can lose a good portion of your seedling batch. On the other hand, gardeners are known to overcompensate when planting and start 20-25% more seeds than necessary. That means you often end up with a seedling surplus.

Which is an advantage – whether in providing more tomato seedlings for your garden or in making you a hero because you must give away so many tomato plants to family and friends.

Tomato Growing Tip #78: 45% gardeners prefer to start tomato plants from seeds with Tomato Dirt #HomeGarden

Buy tomato seedlings: advantages and disadvantages

1. Advantages

Maybe you don’t have time to start seedlings before planting season. Or maybe you’d rather spend your gardening hours outdoors, rather than inside. If so, you can buy tomato and save time. Plants are already established and ready to be transplanted into the garden. 72% of tomato growers who prefer tomato seedlings over tomato seed starting cite the convenience and time efficiency that comes with skipping the germination phase.

Less risk
When you buy tomato seedlings, you eliminate the risks associated with starting seeds – particularly germination rates and the risk of diseases. Ask any agricultural extension and they’ll report the success rate of transplanting seedlings into mature, fruit-bearing plants is consistently higher than starting plants from seeds.

2. Disadvantages

Limited options
When you hop in the car and head over to your local nursery or garden center to buy tomato seedlings, you’re limited to the types of tomatoes they offer on their shelves. Typically, retailers sell the most popular tomato varieties. To be fair, they offer varieties that do well in your local climate, too. A garden center in the English Midlands sells different types of tomatoes – those that do well in wet summers – than does the big box store in Phoenix, Arizona, where the growing season is hot and dry. Even so, limited choice is a big reason that gardening enthusiasts choose to start at least a portion of their own tomato seedlings. A survey conducted by the International Seed Testing Association 40% of respondents expressed a desire for a broader selection of tomato varieties.

Mass produced plants are exposed to more pathogens than individually grown seedlings. At least one in five commercially purchased seedlings shows signs of pest infestation or diseases. If your seedlings are among them, you risk infecting other plants in your garden along with your tomatoes.

Commercially-grown seedlings are used to greenhouse conditions. You need to take special care to harden off purchased seedlings to minimize transplant shock.

If you want to grow just one or two tomato plants, then buying seedlings makes economic sense. But more than a handful of tomatoes? At several dollars a pop per seedling, you can drop some serious cash when purchasing plants.

Start plants from seeds or buy tomato seedlings: which is best?

The answer, of course, is both. Each has its challenges and rewards. In the end, whether you choose to embark on the rewarding journey of nurturing tomatoes from seeds or opt for the convenience of ready-made seedlings, the joy of harvesting sun-kissed tomatoes remains at the heart of every gardener's dream.

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