When Transplants Aren’t the Best

okra sold as seedlings, potted okra seedlings, package store okra plants

Every spring stores and garden centers brim with plants for local gardeners. There are racks and racks of little plants, ready to stick into the garden. What gardener can resist browsing through the tomatoes and peppers? Recently I browsed a local box store and was quite impressed with their selection of hot peppers. Many of these transplants are great, but did you know that transplants aren’t always the best? Sometimes seeds are a far better option.

When are transplants advantageous?

Even though I usually prefer growing from seed,  there are times that I do appreciate being able to obtain transplants. For example, not everyone has a suitable arrangement for growing seeds indoors. Also some crops, such as eggplant, tomatoes and peppers are best started indoors and transplanted outside at around 6-8 weeks of age.  They transplant well and are really high producers per capita, meaning a single plant can produce a whole lot. Even when I grow these crops from seed, I usually put them into the garden as transplants, having started them well before the date of the average last frost.

8 week old tomato plants, tomato transplants, tomato seedlings
These beautiful tomato transplants, ready to go in the garden.

“Tomato Transplants”by Kurt Morrow is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Link: Why Grow Tomatoes from Seed?

Link: How to Grow Tomatoes from Seed

Even an ardent seed lover will sometimes pick up a transplant.

Even an ardent seed lover will sometimes pick up a transplant, especially if they’ve suffered a set back from frost, pests or flooding and there isn’t time to start from seed. Additionally, when visiting a garden center, one might discover a transplant of a great variety and decide to try it out “at the last moment.” Still, I believe that today’s new gardeners are often too inclined to go with transplants instead of seeds.

Here are five reasons why transplants often aren’t the best way to  go.

  • Anything which grows from a large seed is likely to do better if planted directly in the garden.

    Transplant shock

    Any time a plant is moved from a pot to the garden there is some degree of shock. This is in part because the roots are disturbed and its environment changed. Once moved, the plant will often just sit there for several days, before it resumes growth. You can’t see it, but it’s reestablishing its root system and adjusting to the new environment.


    Many transplants are raised behind glass or under artificial light. They require time to build resistance to the sun’s UV rays, otherwise they will burn, their leaves will turn white and they will die. Transitioning such a plant takes up to a week, just to avoid KILLING it. On the other hand, this entire process can be skipped by planting the seeds directly in the garden.

    lima bean seed, red and black lima bean seed, bean seed
    Beans can sometimes sprout in as little as five days from planting.


  • Some things only transplant reasonably well for a couple of days after germination. After that, they are severely shocked or killed by having their roots disturbed. Our feature photo is of okra transplants. Upon sprouting I would only give okra plants about 3 days before they will become too sensitive to transplant and be worth planting. The ones in the photo have been up for about a week.

cucumber seedlings in a cup, cucumber plants in a cup, overcrowded seedlings
These cucumber seedlings are crowded. Separating them, as is necessary for proper spacing, will harm the roots and shock the plants.
  • Oftentimes a transplant really doesn’t save time, as a direct sown seed will actually catch up and out-perform a transplant. Almost all the larger seeded garden vegetables are like this.

    summer squash transplants, yellow squash plants, potted squash
    Squash and pumpkins grow so fast, I sometimes joke that one needs to drop the seed and … run! Otherwise they might catch you!


  •  If it can easily be grown from seed, it is almost ALWAYS more economical to do so. There is simply no comparison in terms of cost. Seeds win every time, but this is especially true with the large seeded vegetables. Here’s a photo of two watermelon seedlings. With tax they would have cost $4.36, and that would have been for just two plants which most likely wouldn’t produce any sooner than seeds planted the same day.

    watermelon seedlings in a cup, watermelon transplants, 2 watermelon seedlings for sale
    Watermelon is almost always best, planted directly in the garden as seed.

    Depending on variety, there can be between 170 and 560 watermelon seeds to the ounce, and Willhite Seed, offered  1/4 ounce of seed, for this very same variety for $1.95! By the very most conservative reckoning, that’s a difference of $2.18 per plant versus $0.02 per plant, assuming the lowest number of seed per ounce and a 66% germination rate.

In this example the transplants are at least 109 times more expensive than the seed!

Additionally it’s quite feasible to store extra seed , sealed in an airtight container, in the freezer, for decades, taking out seed whenever one wants to plant watermelon. That $1.95 purchase of watermelon seed could conceivably meet your need for watermelon seeds for the rest of your life, but if you use transplants, you’ll have to repurchase every year.

  • There is WAY more variety available to one who grows from seed, than from transplants.

Continuing with the watermelon illustration, there was one variety of watermelon transplant available at the box store. Sandhill Preservation Center alone, offers 54 varieties, many of which are heirlooms and Willhite offers others, including seedless and hybrid (seeds). Depending upon the vegetable, using seed may increase ones options by up to a thousand times over what’s available in transplants. Box stores and most nurseries generally offer fewer than half a dozen varieties of most large seeded vegetables (usually only one or two).


Can you think of any other reasons to grow from seed? We’d love to read your comments!





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