All Things Garden,  Beginner Basics

How to Choose the Best Seedlings at the Nursery

Are you getting ready to plant your garden, but not feeling quite prepared to make the jump and grow everything from seed? Did the season creep up on you, and now it’s too late to start from seed, even though you wanted to? Or, maybe you are growing some garden crops from seed, but want to add a few “starts” from the nursery as well.

Whatever your reason, embrace it! Because any reason to do some plant shopping is a damn good reason, IMHO! There is no shame, I repeat, no shame in buying nursery seedlings instead of starting from seed. That is the way we gardened for years, and still do pick up started plants here and there! So get yourself some seedlings! Do note however: some things are best planted from seed, or “sowed in place”, instead of being transplanted. Veggies that prefer to be directly-sown include carrots, radishes, turnips, and to a lesser extent, beans and beets.

Here are some tips and things to keep in mind when you’re selecting started seedlings from a nursery. This article will discuss where to buy seedlings, how to assess seedlings health, and how to choose varieties best suited for your garden.


Where to Seedling Shop


Try to seek out small local nurseries if possible. Even better, become a regular! We love our Miner’s Ace Hardware garden center, locally-owned Farm Supply, and another small mom-and-pop by the name of Cherry Lane Nursery here on the Central Coast. Shopping locally is awesome, period, but especially when it comes to plants! Smaller, local places are more likely to carry things that are best suited to grow well in your area, and are currently in season. They’ll probably have more unique varieties of seedlings to choose from as well.

Our local Miner’s Ace Hardware nursery center in Arroyo Grande, California. No, they don’t know us by name. I swear.

Most big box stores will just stock whatever is standard across all their stores, regardless of the season. For example, I frequently see tomatoes and peppers out for sale at Home Depot in December. That is not the time of year to start these crops in most places in the US, here included. Big box stores are also more likely to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and may have less organic options.


Assessing the Health of Seedling


Age and Size

The two 6-packs of seedlings pictured below are similar varieties of cauliflower. Do NOT buy something that looks like the one on the right! Bigger is not always better, especially in the seedling world. Avoid the tall, leggy, stretched out, woody, tough seedlings. Choose seedlings that look more like the left instead: the smaller, more tender, bright green, fresh and healthy looking ones!

Two images of Snowball Cauliflower seedlings in 6-packs. The one on the left is clearly more green, healthy, smaller, and tender. The ones on the right are already starting to bolt, and look woody, discolored and stressed. Choose the left!
Two options for Snowball Cauliflower. The one on the left is clearly more green, healthy, and tender. The ones on the right are already starting to bolt, and look woody and stressed. Choose the left!


The older and larger seedlings get, and the longer they’re forced to live in such small containers, the more likely they’ll become root-bound and permanently stunted. A plant becomes root-bound when its roots grow too large for its current container and wrap around themselves tightly. This makes it more difficult for their roots to spread out and get established once the plant is transplanted, which negatively impacts its growth. It can also lead to transplant shock, if their roots are broken apart too roughly in an attempt to loosen them during transplanting.

When someone takes home seedlings in this state and plants them in their garden, they’ll likely stay quite small, barely produce decent veggies, and then bolt. Bolting means going to flower and then seed, which can sometimes happen prematurely. Root bound, unhappy seedlings are exponentially more likely to “fail”, or at least fail to thrive. This is true no matter how rich and healthy the soil is, or if the gardener is doing everything else right!  Ask me how I know.

I feel annoyed and sad to see these crappy seedlings put out for sale in nurseries. New gardeners that may not know any better (unlike you!) will purchase them, put them in the ground, and the plants will likely do poorly. This may cause the new gardener to think that THEY did something wrong –  even believing that they have a “black thumb”. Have you felt this way before? We have. The new gardener may give up on trying to grow that particular vegetable, or even worse, give up on gardening all together! It’s just setting folks up for failure and frustration.

Two images of nursery seedlings. The plant on the left has obvious yellow aphids all over it. The one on the right is a small kale seedling, and my hands are pulling open the center leaves to check the hidden middle area.
Not all pests will be as obvious as the aphids on the left. Check the underside of leaves and center of the seedling too!


Pests & Disease

Be sure to check for pests on the seedlings! Sometimes we find aphids or cucumber beetles on nursery seedlings around here. Put those ones back. We don’t want to bring home and introduce any extra pests or diseases to the homestead! Plus, those plants are likely already stressed and less healthy, giving them a disadvantage from the start.

Don’t forget to peek at the undersides of leaves and in the very center of the plant, where pests often like to hide. Not all pests will be as obvious as they are on the left photo.

It should go without saying that the seedlings pictured below wouldn’t be your ideal choice. They clearly have some signs of discoloration, stress, and possibly disease.  I hate to give up on them, because who knows… maybe they could bounce back? But why risk it? Choose seedlings that are the most healthy looking.

A photo of discolored, yellow, partially wilted seedlings at a nursery. Included are cucumber, peppers, kale, and eggplant seedlings.
Last time we were at the nursery, there were so many seedlings in pretty pitiful condition. I rounded up this selection to show you all what NOT to buy.


Which Type of Seedlings Should I Buy?


Consider the Season

Choose seedlings that are currently “in season” and ideal for transplanting right now in your area. For example, choose heat-loving crops like tomatoes, squash, and peppers if you’re coming up on your hot season. Cooler season crops include things like leafy greens, cabbage, radishes, or broccoli.  

If you aren’t sure what to plant when, or even what your growing zone is, it sounds like you need a garden planting calendar! Oh, you don’t have one? I’ve got you covered. If you choose to subscribe to the Homestead and Chill weekly newsletter, you’ll be emailed a garden planning toolkit immediately upon sign up. It includes planting calendars for every USDA zone! If you aren’t located in the US, many people have been able to successfully look up the USDA equivalent for where they live and still make great use of the toolkit.

An example of the Homestead and Chill planting calendar for Zone 10.


Keep an eye out for non-GMO and certified organic labels on plants. It’s a personal decision, but I will tell you this ~ those are the babies we love to bring home. Another thing to consider when choosing seedlings is: what do you want to eat? Grow what you like and will use! That said, don’t be afraid to try new things too.

Consider the variety

While shopping, if you’re trying to decide between varieties, for example between two different types of broccoli they have in stock, whip out your phone and do a quick google search. Read up on those varieties growing condition requirements – it may reveal info that’ll sway your decision one way or another! Because many varieties within the same family or type of plant have pretty different characteristics. For example, some have better heat or cold tolerance, longer or shorter days to maturation (time to harvest), or disease resistance.

For example, because we have pretty cool and foggy summers here, we can’t just grab up any old tomato seedlings. We need to search for smaller, early-ripening, cool weather tolerant types. Additionally, we look for varieties with natural resistance to powdery mildew since that is a common issue on this homestead. These are the kinds of things we take into consideration both while choosing seedlings and shopping for seeds.


Looking down on trays of very green, healthy looking seedings on a wooden bench inside a greenhouse.
Healthy seedlings. Yes, these are ones we grew ourselves… but that doesn’t mean you can’t find nice, fresh, healthy-looking ones at the nursery too!


A final take-home message:


Please, don’t buy something “just to buy something”. If the plant doesn’t look great, isn’t the variety you were hoping for, or doesn’t sound like a good match for your garden, don’t settle! The final take-home message is that you don’t necessarily have to take something home, today. See what I did there?

Wait. Ask. Inquire to the nursery staff about their seedling delivery schedule. Maybe they are in for a large seedling shipment tomorrow! We learned ours come in Tuesday and Friday. Shop around. Hit up another local spot. Furthermore, if you still can’t find what you want, see if your local nursery can put in a special request or order from their farmers for you! As a matter of fact, we do this all the time for our fruit trees and vines.

In all, if you are going to invest your time, energy, and love into raising plants, you might as well start with the best chances possible!

After reading this, I hope you feel more prepared and confident to choose stellar seedlings for your garden. Happy growing!




One Comment

  • Sheri Nugent

    Hi Deanna – I feel like I should get college credit for my work based on your website. You are my garden guru – I’ve never gardened before – and now I have raised beds full of veg, companion flowers, and tons of bees and butterflies. I have a question that you may have experienced to:

    I planted golden beets from starter plants a few months ago. Also in that raised bed is a serrano pepper plant. The pepper plant never produced peppers – so far – but its a very healthy plant so that’s fine, I guess.

    The golden beets taste oddly spicy. Delicious – but unmistakably spicy/hot.

    Is it possible that the beets picked up flavor from the serrano plant? Or am I delusional? It’s a 4 x 5 ft bed, beets around the edges, the serrano plant in the middle.

    I wonder if you’ve ever experienced something like that.

    Thanks!

    Sheri

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