Purchasing plants in containers has its advantages, convenience and faster results (at least initially) being high on the list. But what about starting from seed? Besides the obvious advantage of costing less, is there any reason to do so?
One big reason has to do with genetic diversity.
But wouldn’t container-grown plants of the same species be genetically diverse? Maybe, but not necessarily. Here’s why.
First, much of what you’ll see sold in nurseries consists of cultivars.
If you see a label that reads like this – Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa – you’re looking at the straight species.
But if you’re looking at a label that reads more like – Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa ‘Gay Butterflies’ – you’re looking at a cultivar. In this example, the cultivar name is ‘Gay Butterflies.’
And every ‘Gay Butterflies’ butterflyweed plant is going to be genetically identical to every other one on the planet.
Second, even if you’re looking at an example of the straight species, how it was propagated matters.
If it’s the result of cuttings or other cloning methods – which are quicker, easier, and thus more profitable for “traditional” growers – well, the end result is still a bunch of clones.
So, moving forward, what is the result of shrinking the genetic pool?
You’re probably already familiar with the issues. A restricted gene pool is why, for example, specific breeds of dogs and cats can develop a tendency for health problems that run in the breed, whereas “mutts” often enjoy “hybrid vigor”.
It’s similar with plants. The more diverse the gene pool, the greater the potential for resilience.
Growing from seed harvested from a diverse population (as opposed to a small, cultivated one), results in greater biodiversity. That’s good for the survival of the species. And that’s good for the health of the planet which sustains our own lives.
More Vigorous Plants
Another compelling reason to consider growing from seed sown where you want the plants to grow is to enjoy more vigorous plants in the long run.
In the gardening world, there’s a saying: “First year sleeps, second year creeps, third year leaps.”
It refers to the settling in process of plants that have been put through transplanting. Generally speaking, the smaller the transplantee, the quicker it will settle in to its new life in your garden.
If you think about it, it makes sense.
A plant grown in a container has very limited space for its roots to spread out. That’s why, when you pop a plant out of a container, what you very often see is a densely-packed mass. Generally speaking, the longer it’s been confined in its container, the more dense that tangle of roots will be.
In effect, the growth of the plant’s foundation has been restrained. Even after you “tease” roots free from that container-shaped lump in preparation for transplanting, it takes awhile for the plant to recover and start visibly growing again.
But that’s not how plants grow naturally. If a seed germinates where the plant is to grow, it can spread its roots out to its heart’s content, right from the very beginning of its life as a green plant.
So ideally (from the plants’ perspective), if you’re going to transplant something, you’ll transplant a seedling.
But if you’re going to do that, why not just plant the seeds in place? The process isn’t all that different from seeding a new lawn, something the majority of homeowners know how to do. It’s really not scary. 😊
Now, I’m not against transplants. I purchase some container-grown plants every year. And I’ve shared elsewhere that my first big success after a string of discouraging years in the garden involved starting with plugs, or small, young plants.
For the newer or less patient gardener, being able to see actual plants right away can understandably be way more satisfying than seeing “nothing” for a period of days, weeks, or in certain cases, months.
But for someone whose vision for their garden stretches beyond the scope of their budget, who wants to graduate to a new challenge, or who wants to grow something that’s not readily available in the trade, seeds can be a wonderful way to go.
Under what circumstances would you consider starting plants from seed?