Buy Plant Starts? Or Grow Your Own?

Vegetable Starts

How to get the best organic and heirloom vegetable starts for your garden.

Organic gardeners are faced with a dilemma this time of year. How do we obtain organically raised vegetable starts for placement in our gardens? The best answer of course is to start them ourselves. This allows us to control all the variables — the seed, the starting mix, any amendments or rooting formulas we might use — without using or having any unnecessary concern for herbicides, pesticides, inorganic soil additives, or such chemicals as growth regulators.

Of course, there are situations that motivate us to look for plant starts. Maybe we’ve discovered that we have extra room in the garden, maybe some of our seed didn’t germinate, or maybe some of our starts had problems with damping off or other diseases. In my case, I find that I’m just unable to start all the different kinds of plants I want to grow that require the head-start of a few weeks ahead of being set out in the garden.

Luckily, more and more nurseries and gardening supply stores are offering organic starts as well as the kind of heirloom plants that large commercial nurseries and big box home supply stores don’t carry. And there are increasing number of mail-order nurseries that will ship organic and heirloom plants to your door. If you’re lucky enough to have a near-by nursery of this sort by all means take advantage. And by take advantage we mean in more ways than just buying their plants.

Local nurseries are a great source of advice. I’ve heard complaints that they’re more expensive than buying plants and other gardening supplies at your local franchise home and building supply store such as Home Depot and Lowe’s. While this may be true, your locally-owned nursery always offers something the big box suppliers don’t: first-hand, experienced information specific to your area. (Full disclosure: We once encountered a very knowledgeable store clerk in the nursery section of one of those big box stores, someone who was obviously an experienced gardener who could speak to soil conditions, natural growing techniques, and the best varieties for our region. Fuller disclosure: She often recommended we go to our locally-run nursery to buy our plant starts rather than the root-bound, leggy starts that had been trucked hundreds of miles to the store).

So if you’re buying starts from a local nursery, talk up the employees. Sure, you can ask for the usual “how-to-grow” and “what-variety-is-best” advice. But also ask them when the plants were started, what the growing medium is, and when you should expect to set them out in the garden. Ask about the best way to harden off the plants you purchase. Ask them if they’ve used any fertilizers (organic, of course) or soil amendments. Ask them how long you should wait until you add any fertilizer after setting out plants. Ask about their water needs.

When choosing nursery stock, take precautions. Is the plant root bound? Are the roots circling inside the pot and pushing out the bottom? These starts are best avoided. Check the plants for damage including broken or dented stems, brown and broken leaves, or twisted, misshapen central stems. Look for signs of disease including black spots on leaves (be sure to check the undersides) and brown or black areas on the stem near the soil.

You know what a leggy plant looks like. Legginess, as does being root-bound, indicates a plant that was started too early, grown with too little light, or has spent too much time in its starting pot. Avoid these as well. Avoid pots that have more than one plant growing from them. Multiple starts in a single pot may seem like a bargain but they’re also stunted from crowding (which encourages legginess) and have developed fewer leaves. Worse, their roots are probably tangled. Separating them will set the plant back or kill it.

Here’s some good reading on choosing healthy plant starts.

If you’re going into a nursery to buy starts, go in with a plan. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a nursery and purchased plants, often far more than I needed, on impulse. I’ve also let my emotions play a role in plant selection, seeing plants that need “rescue,” when in reality they will just cause grief. This is akin to being attracted to the runt of a puppy litter. Let me tell you . . . it’s much easier to rehabilitate a puppy and end up with a big, healthy dog than it is to revive a sickly tomato start. And even if you do manage to bring that tomato plant into healthy adulthood, the set back it’s had will make it more vulnerable to pests and disease. It will also be slower to mature. During garden season, the clock is always ticking.

So let’s reiterate one point. While there are a growing number of nurseries and gardening stores offering organic plant starts, the best plant starts are grown at home. And there’s one thing you can’t get from a nursery-purchased start: the reward and satisfaction of knowing you did it yourself.

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