Growing vegetables used to mean raising them from seed, but thanks to their popularity, nurseries and mail-order companies now also offer a wide range of seedlings and young plants. Deciding what to buy is a question of how much time, money, and space you have, and which crops you have chosen to grow.
Growing plants from seed is easy and immensely satisfying. Seeds are
available from nurseries and mail-order companies, or collect them from
plants that have been left to flower. Seeds offer the widest choice of
vegetable cultivars, with options of size, habit, color, and disease
resistance. Potatoes are grown from tubers, known as seed potatoes,
while miniature onion and shallot bulbs, called “sets,” provide an
alternative to seed.
- Crop choices: All vegetables, but particularly root crops, which are
best grown from seed. Alpine strawberries are the only fruit worth
- Pros: Seeds are cheap, and a package stored in cool, dry conditions can
last several seasons. They offer control over plant numbers and
flexibility to sow little and often.
- Cons: Seeds take time, require small pots or trays, and need space, especially tender crops that are sown indoors. Seeds provide great value for money and a good choice of crops.
Seedlings or Plug Plants
These small plants are grown in seed trays and can be bought in
nurseries or through mail-order seed companies. They are a useful option
where space is limited or conditions are not suitable for raising
plants from seed and they offer good value for money. However, such
small plants are delicate and will need potting up and watering as soon
as you receive them, especially if they have arrived in the mail.
- Crop choices: No fruit but most vegetables are available as plugs,
particularly those that are grown in quantity, such as lettuces and
leafy crops like Swiss chard.
- Pros: Quicker than sowing seed, plugs save time and space, and are
economical, even for lots of plants.
- Cons: The range of cultivars available is more limited than for seed. Plants need careful handling, potting, and acclimatizing to new conditions to avoid losses. Seedling plants, or “plugs”, save time and are relatively inexpensive.
Available from nurseries and mail-order companies, sturdy young plants
grown individually in small pots offer gardeners the chance to try crops
that may be too time consuming or difficult to grow from seed. If there
is only space for one summer squash, or a single specimen of several
tomato cultivars, then buying them as young plants makes sense. Look for
strong, healthy plants that look stocky, bright green, and
well-watered. Carefully knock plants from their containers to check that
the roots are not cramped and pot-bound, and plant out as soon as they
are hardened off and conditions are suitable.
- Crop choices: Good choices include strawberries and rhubarb, as well as
fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, sweet and chili peppers, cucumbers,
- Pros: Larger plants make an instant impact and save the time and space
needed to raise seedlings. They are valuable for heat-loving crops if
you have nowhere indoors to sow and grow them on, and can be purchased
after the frosts when they can be planted outside. They’re also a good
idea if you only need one or two plants.
- Cons: This is an expensive way to grow vegetables, and there is a much more limited range of cultivars available. Plants must be acclimatized to outdoor conditions, too, so don’t buy too early if your indoor space is limited. Young plants are ideal if only a few crops are required.
Trees and Shrubs
Most fruit grows on trees and shrubs, which can either be bought growing
in containers or as field-grown “bare-root” plants, which are lifted
and sold when dormant between early winter and early spring. This
dormant season is also the best time to plant fruit trees and bushes,
although pot-grown types can be planted throughout the year.
Container-grown fruit is widely available, while bare-root plants are
usually only available from specialist fruit nurseries via mail order.
Always buy certified disease-free plants and check that trees are
growing on a suitable rootstock for pots. If buying single specimens,
make sure they are self-fertile; if not, you will need a suitable
pollination partner as well.
- Crop choices: All fruit trees and bushes are available in these forms.
Choose mature specimens that are ready to fruit if you want instant
- Pros: Bare-root plants are cheaper and offer a wider range of cultivars
on dwarfing rootstocks. Container-grown trees and shrubs can be planted
year-round, are widely available, and don’t need planting immediately.
- Cons: Bare-root plants are only delivered in winter and early spring
and must be planted immediately. Container-grown trees tend to be more
expensive, with fewer cultivars on offer. Old stock can also be
Buy fruit trees and bushes in containers for instant impact.