Don’t have time and space to grow your tomato plants from seed? Here’s what to be aware of when you source your seedlings from somewhere else.

tomato seedlings in a tray

One of your first garden planning decisions when growing tomatoes is whether to buy seedlings or start your own from seed. Photo © Shoe Heel Factory, excerpted from Epic Tomatoes.

There are many reasons to start with seedlings, rather than starting your own seed. If you didn’t plan ahead, don’t have the desired seeds in hand, have germination issues with the seed, or don’t have space or time, you’ll want to purchase tomato seedlings for your garden. Fortunately, the popularity of heirloom tomatoes has done wonders for the availability of seedlings, whether from seed companies, small seedling suppliers, or local farmers’ markets.

THE PROS

The advantages of using pre-started seedlings (purchased locally or through mail order or shared from gardening friends) generally focus on convenience, space constraints, and timing. Starting tomatoes from seed requires up-front planning, selecting and purchasing of seeds, and an appropriate space in which to grow the seeds. And packets of seeds often provide far more seeds for a variety than are required.

By eliminating the steps and materials involved in starting your own seed, planting your garden with purchased tomato seedlings could end up being more cost-effective. By obtaining just the number of plants you need, you avoid the conundrum of what to do with the numerous excess seedlings that often result from overly ambitious gardeners starting too many plants of too many varieties. You also avoid the annual angst of trying to nuture self-started seedlings along in a healthy state in the typically unsettled late winter and early spring weather.

THE CONS

If you do choose to plant your garden with purchased tomato seedlings, it is important to know the various risks. Tomato seedlings are quite tender and there is always the chance that mail-order plants will not arrive in good condition. The cost of seedlings, when compared to seeds, is significantly higher, especially when considering shipping costs. And, of course, you’ll have a much narrower selection of tomato varieties if you buy seedlings than you would if you started them yourself.

If you purchase seedlings locally, you might still encounter plants that have been mishandled, underwatered, or infected with diseases.

Seedlings that are greenhouse-grown may not have been hardened off properly. (On this note, larger is not necessarily better, as smaller, well-hardened seedlings will adapt more quickly to being planted out than leggy, less-hardened specimens.) It is important to watch for seedlings that have been only recently transplanted and have yet to develop an effective root system in the container.

Finally, there is always a chance that the tomatoes you end up with are not what you expected (this is a possibility with seeds, too). One of the inevitable downsides to the popularity of heirloom tomatoes is that not all the vendors that have cropped up recently take care to ensure the accuracy of their seed sources. This just reinforces the importance of seed-saving organizations and those avid heirloom variety guardians, for whom historical and genetic accuracy is paramount.

When shopping for seedlings, be sure to ask questions to determine the vendor’s level of experience and familiarity with the varieties offered. Fortunately, good planting practices following seedling purchase will result in eventual success in all cases, save misidentified or diseased plants.

different colored tomatoes in a yellow wooden box

Photo © Shoe Heel Factory, excerpted from Epic Tomatoes.

USE CAUTION WHEN PURCHASING SEEDLINGS

When buying seedlings, be sure to avoid seedlings that:

  • Seem too large and leggy for their container size
  • Have open flowers and fruit on plants that seem far too young
  • Show blemishes or discoloration on the foliage or stems
  • Are wilted, crowded, or generally unhappy looking

Gardening takes and handsomely repays the efforts put into it throughout the season, and everyone should aim for the best start possible to their season. Starting with substandard, unhealthy plants will only bring disappointment and frustration.

Text excerpted from Epic Tomatoes © 2015 by Craig LeHoullier. All rights reserved.

Craig LeHoullier

Craig LeHoullier is the author of Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales and Epic Tomatoes and the tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange. In the last… See Bio

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