Plants you Should Never Buy as Seedlings
You’ve definitely seen them. At a garden center, or even some supermarkets, you’ve seen those racks of those happy little seedlings in their little plastic pots. Plant starts that are so perfect, so ready, and at only $3.99 each!
But I’m warning you: some of those plants are already doomed.
Plants and their Tolerance for Transplanting
There’s plants that love being repotted or “potted up.” These are plants like tomatoes, pepper, and eggplants, most succulents, and strawberries. They will do great if you buy and plant them in your garden.
And there are plants that will tolerate being potted up, like brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, kale), mint family plants (basil, mint, sage, lemon balm), lettuce, spinach, celery, artichoke, scarlet runner beans, onions, and garlic. You can buy these as plants and, with care, transplant them successfully.
And then there’s the plants that are not happy being transplanted. They fall into three main categories: taproot plants, vine plants, and fibrous root plants.
These are plants that have a large taproot that the plant needs to survive. On a carrot, this is obvious, but other members of the carrot’s plant family are parsley, dill, fennel (not the evil kind, they will grow back from any piece of the plant, like a horror movie monster), and cilantro.
If you grow these plants in pots yourself, you can possibly transplant them when the taproots are still super tiny, but those plants at the store are already huge–the green parts wouldn’t look good to buy otherwise–so they will not take kindly to being moved. For the most part, carrot-family plants bought at the store will not survive transplanting.
If you still want to start seeds indoors yourself, I would recommend starting seeds in tall containers that can be directly plopped in the soil and that the plant can grow through, like thin cardboard. Toilet paper tubes with removable bottoms may work. And be sure to harden off and transplant soon after germination so the taproots will not be too big when you do it.
I’m talking about squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, and melons. These are MASSIVE plants that grow from BIG seeds and develop HUGE trailing vines. On the seed packets, they recommend planting them in MOUNDS. Does that sound like they like to be moved? Think of them as the mountains of the plant world–they are steadfast and still, and don’t like taking a walk.
To grow those vines, the plants in these families like to sprout and start sending roots out right away. They need to be strong under the ground to support that incredible growth above ground. So, disturbing these large roots does not go well for the plants. They are not as sure to fail as taproot plants, but great care must be taken when transplanting to ensure survival.
If you still want to purchase plants in this family, choose the smallest healthy-looking plants, and be sure they are in reasonable-sized containers. If they are in 2-inch square pots, leave them, as they will be root bound, no question. Transplant into large holes, gently coaxing the plants out, and do not mess with the roots at all if you can avoid it.
If you germinate these in containers yourself, which can help get a head start in the spring, be sure to plant them in LARGE containers like quart-size yogurt tubs or cut-off gallon milk containers. Or, if you have options for biodegradable materials, like newspaper, do that to avoid any root disturbance. Those hard “degradable” plastic containers sold at garden stores do not always break down, meaning you may transplant only to leave the poor thing root-bound in the original container, so be aware of that.
And, even if you do everything right, some of these plants just will not put up with transplantation. My watermelons this year were lovingly sprouted in paper containers and ever-so-gently transplanted. And, under the same conditions and treatment, one variety survived and the other just failed to thrive.
Fibrous Root Plants
A lot of plants fall into this category, but the most popular garden veggies would be most beans, peas, and corn. It makes me so mad to see corn and beans on sale as plants, because 1. They HATE being transplanted and 2. They are so easy to grow from seed.
These plants should always be grown from seed, in place. They need water and warmth and protection from smart birds, like Scrub Jays, who will dig up and eat the seeds. But then they’re pretty hardy and happy to grow where you put them. And there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a tiny corn kernel become a towering 8-foot plant–I highly recommend it.
Should I Buy Seedlings?
Hopefully this little chart will help you decide whether to spend your money on seedlings & starts.
Great to Buy
OK to Buy
Scarlet Runner Beans
Do Not Buy