While many plants can be directly seeded into the garden, others benefit from getting a head start in smaller containers that they will be grown to maturity in. These “starts” are either purchased in advance of final planting or prepared from seed, rooted cutting, or via other propagation method.
A benefit of starting plants from cuttings (clones) is that the starts will be copies of a plant with known characteristics. Also, some plants must be started from cuttings. For example, Cavendish bananas and other seedless plants must be started this way as they lack the ability to propagate sexually (that is, they lack fertile seeds). While starting from seeds is usually a less expensive option, but many people find the convenience and reliability of starter plants to be worth the difference in price.
Start the Right Plants
Keep in mind that starts eventually (hopefully) grow into full-sized mature plants. While this may sound obvious, it means that while shopping for starts, one is also shopping for future full-sized plants. So, climate requirements, light, and available space should be taken into account when selecting which starts to try.
Garden zones are assigned to plants to help gardeners choose which plants are suitable for their climate. Another method of finding plants suitable for a given area is to observe what other local gardeners are successful with. Experiment to find favorites and take notes of any particularly enjoyable varieties. Garden zone information should be available on the plant’s identification tag, on the back of the seed packet, or from the source.
Even in the appropriate gardening zone, there are still light requirements to consider for a given space. In an outdoor setting, shade from other objects can reduce the number of full-sun hours a space receives. Pay attention throughout a day for a given space to determine how many hours of direct sunlight it gets. Less than three hours of direct sun is considered “full shade,” three to six hours is either “partial sun” or “partial shade,” and six or more hours is “full sun.” Light requirements are often found on the backs of seed packets or on the plant labels of starts. For indoor gardens, some partial shade plants can be grown successfully at the periphery of the primary growing area.
Prospective starts should be seasonally appropriate. Summer flowering annuals tend to be planted in the spring. It would make little sense to plant a summer flowering annual in late fall shortly before a killing frost. Most plants have a listing for the ideal planting months, with perennials generally being more forgiving of slightly-out-of-season plantings than annuals.
Information about the expected mature size of a plant variety is frequently available for gardeners from a variety of sources. A plot of overcrowded plants tends to yield less than a properly spaced one would, even with the greater number of plants. The number of starts should be related to the proper number of plants desired. As a safety precaution, many gardeners start more plants than they intend to finish. This allows for a cushion in case some don’t sprout or root. It is much easier to get rid of a few extras than to go back in time and have started more in the first place.
To select starts for use, inspect them carefully. The seedlings or rooted cuttings used should appear healthy and vigorous. While it is true that many plants can be nursed back to health from a rough start, beginning with inferior starts sends a garden off on the wrong foot. Here are five indicators to be wary of:
- Too tall and lanky for its size. Seedlings grown without sufficient light will stretch to find better light. This can lead to weak stems and top-heavy foliage.
- Pale leaves. Leaves that are light in color compared to a healthy plant may be suffering from a nutrient deficiency.
- Underdeveloped or overdeveloped roots. Cuttings should be well-rooted before planting but not overly root-bound.
- Any observed insects on or around the starts should be identified to prevent introducing unwanted guests to the garden. A single cutting can carry enough eggs for some baneful insects to start a colony. To safeguard against this, some gardeners quarantine new arrivals for a couple weeks before installing them in the garden proper even if there are no visible insects present.
- Soft, discolored, or weak stems. While it is common for seedlings to be tender and easily damaged until they become established, soft stems (particularly near soil level) may be an indication of a wilt or other fungal infection. Usually the result of overwatering, these infections are usually fatal in starts, so time spent fighting it is generally better spent obtaining new starts.
The best starts should have:
- Visible new growth. Look at the growing sites for recent foliage development. Healthy growth is an indication of a healthy plant.
- Strong stems and full foliage. Well-lit and cared for plants tend to be stocky with plenty of leaves.
- Clear labeling. At the very least it should clearly identify the plant, and many plant tags include at least some growing information as well.
- Good drainage. Roots sitting in stagnant water can lead to a variety of unwelcome fungal infections and proper drainage is one of the best preventatives.
- The potential to produce something desirable. Even better than fresh vegetables from the garden are favorite fresh vegetables from the garden. Consider personal preferences when selecting from the flowers and vegetables appropriate for the garden zone.
Starting a garden with appropriate and healthy starts can help set a strong foundation for the season’s growth and final harvest. A few minutes of care when selecting which plants to try can improve chances of gardening success.