Basil seedlings

What new gardeners need to hear about starting seeds

I believe a lot of new gardeners are being set up for failure. They’re told from multiple sources that growing their own plants from seed is a great way, in fact, the only way, to really start gardening. When a new gardener tries to grow something and has a bad experience right off the bat, it’s just as easy for them to believe the myths that it’s difficult, not for them, or that they just missed the green thumb gene. The bad set up I’m talking about is targeted especially at new vegetable gardeners. Flower gardeners don’t seem to be subjected to the same pressure.


I find that if someone starts talking about how they’re thinking about putting in a little vegetable garden for the first time — maybe growing their own tomatoes, saving a bit of money on groceries — the first thing they’re going to start hearing about is seeds. How cheap and easy they are. How you can save thousands imply by buying some (magic bean) seeds. The advice will come from the columnist in the community paper, their dentist, the lady behind them at the checkout counter, the mailman and even their kids’ school newsletter. And there is some truth to it.




The problem is, this is not the place for a new gardener to start. If you’re a new gardener I want you to know that you don’t need to start all of your plants from seeds. You can still be a “real” gardener and buy plants that someone else already started. They’re called seedlings or transplants, they’re widely available, relatively cheap, and there’s no shame in buying them. If you’re determined to have a 100% organic garden you can buy organic seedlings; even they are relatively easy to find these days.


It’s not that I’m against starting plants from seeds. I do it myself and I thoroughly enjoy it. In fact, I look forward to it all winter and it brings me immense joy in early spring.


But I have the equipment to do it right, a use for a large number of plants, knowledge enough to know how to keep things from going sideways (most of the time), and enough addiction experience to not get turned off gardening if my seedlings do get wiped out.


3 Reasons Why New Gardeners Fail at Starting Seeds

Equipment: Those new to gardening, thinking about growing some tomatoes for the first time, aren’t likely going to invest in a grow light setup. But without them, there’s a high likelihood that they’re going to end up with spindly plants. The average sunny windowsill in April just doesn’t get enough hours of daylight to grow good stocky plants. Spindly plants don’t do well outside in the real world garden. Tomato seedlings need about 16 hours of artificial light a day.

Scale: The average packet of tomato seeds probably has about 20 seeds in it. A new gardener isn’t likely to want much more than 4 tomato plants their first year. In may, a cell pack of 4 healthy tomato seedlings in my area costs about $1.50, organic ones are a bit more. The cost savings of growing your own baby plants just aren’t there if you don’t have a use for a quantity of adult plants.

Knowledge: There’s a lot to learn about providing the different types of conditions that different seeds need in order to germinate and thrive. Tomato seeds like heat coming from underneath them to germinate. Delphiniums won’t germinate if they’re too warm. Lights need to be right close to little plants the whole time they’re growing, moving with the plants. Watering is critical. Seeds can’t be allowed to dry out, even just a little bit, especially in their early days. Water gently, or even better, use a spray bottle to mist them. But give them too much water. especially once they hit the seedling stage, and they’ll rot. Make it through that stage to where you have mature plants ready to grow outside—congratulations! But put them straight out into the garden sun without hardening them off and you can kill or severely damage them in an afternoon.

Flats of vegetable & herb seedlings (foreground) and flowers at a community plant sale.

It’s not that learning all of this is especially difficult. And certainly, there are endless books, blogs and websites to help you. But when you’ve gone from never having a garden to suddenly trying to nurture a plant through the most delicate stage of its’ life, it’s a steep learning curve and frankly, I think it’s asking too much of someone who’s just trying this out for the first time.


I believe that for a new gardener, for most plants, it’s better to start with seedlings the first year. Learn how to grow them into adult plants, prune them, support them, and enjoy your harvest. Do that for a year or two, get good at it, and then try starting some tomato plants from seed. Pick a really interesting variety that you can’t normally find as a seedling in stores, and learn how to grow it from seed. And if it doesn’t work out? You’ll already know where to buy some ground-ready plants. And try the seeds again the next year.


What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.



  1. Angela on April 5, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Thanks Jennifer, this is so encouraging. Nice to know I can still be considered a “real” gardener, even if I haven’t started my plants from seeds.

  2. Jennifer on April 5, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    You’re absolutely a real gardener, Angela! And your garden looks like it, too (and just wait until add even more great plants this year!)

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