Shopping for Starts

There are two choices that most gardeners have to consider when growing a garden: to start the plants from seed, or to buy young plants from a store and transplant into the garden. Some gardeners solely seed and propagate their own plants, while some gardeners only buy transplants. I do a little of both. While I always start my tomatoes and squash from seed, I often buy herb, eggplant and pepper starts. In the fall, I’ll direct seed leafy greens and root veggies, but I depend on nursery starts almost exclusively for the brassicas like cabbage and broccoli.

tomato starts

If you garden with starts, the most important thing to consider is proper selection!

Pick vegetables that will flourish with your climate: a variety of tomato that will do well in the humid south for sure as hell won’t grow the same in the high desert. If you are not sure what will do well, it’s a safe bet if you shop at a locally-run shop or choose starts that were grown locally. Varieties of plants available at local nurseries will be chosen based on what is best for your region, compared to the same few varieties available at big box stores all over the country. If the nursery isn’t starting seeds in-house, check the plant tag for the grower and it’s origin. Many stores, especially smaller nurseries, will buy from a regional grower.

tomato varieties at Harmony Farm Supply

When picking out your plants, look for young, stocky plants, and avoid those that are large, leggy and have flowered or has set fruit. If a plant is too mature or has already bloomed in the pot, it is halfway through its life cycle and the yield may be limited or poor compared to if you choose a young plant that has yet to flower.

Avoid plants like this tomato at Orchard Supply Hardware, which has already  flowered
Avoid plants like this tomato at Orchard Supply Hardware, which has already flowered

Select a plant that has with lots of leaves and strong, healthy roots. Avoid plants where the roots are peeking out from the bottom, a sign of the plant being root bound. This goes for all plants, not just veggie starts. It can be hard to tell in 6-packs, but if you gently lift the plant out of 4″ or half-gallon pots, and can see that the roots are circling the container, choose a different plant. The top growth should also be in good proportion to the container. Some veggies are great to buy in 6-packs, like lettuce and kale, but larger plants like squash and tomatoes should be in 4″ pots. If you shop at a nursery that starts their own seeds, they usually keep an eye on their seedlings and will transplant up to a larger pot as necessary.

Avoid plants that have roots coming from the bottom
Avoid plants that have roots poking from the bottom of the pot
This start, which is a tomatillo I grew, shows ideal root growth for this pot size.
This start, which is a tomatillo I grew, shows ideal root growth for this pot size.

In Sonoma County, my favorite places to get locally grown starts are from Harmony Farm Supply, in Sebastopol, or Cottage Gardens, in Petaluma. The Whole Foods in Coddingtown surprisingly also offers a great selection of regionally grown herbs and veggies, as well as a great selection from Soda Rock Farm, from Healdsburg. Its possible to find great starts in a variety of places, but if you find something while out shopping, take a look around to get a feel for how the plants are treated. Are they covered up at night in case of frost, watered regularly, shoved in a dark corner, or have access to sun?

Whole Foods in Coddingtown has a good variety of heirloom tomatoes from Soda Rock Farms
Whole Foods in Coddingtown has a good variety of heirloom tomatoes from Soda Rock Farms

Starts from small farms are usually available at farmer’s markets, and this is a great way to get locally grown starts. No one can tell you more about how the plant will grow and give you gardening tips than the farmer themselves. I can’t speak for all of them, but I know that the Santa Rosa Certified Original Market and Sebastopol Market have several stands that offer starts. Plant sales are also a great opportunity, often inexpensive and proceeds of sales usually benefit a project or charity. Check out this list from the Sonoma Gazette for a calendar of some of the larger ones. I went to the Men’s Garden Club sale last year, and they had hundreds of types of tomatoes for only a $1 each!

The veggie starts at Friedman's looked a little sad, perhaps because they don't cover them up at night?
Friedman’s has a good selection of regionally grown herbs, but the summer veggies looked a little sad. Perhaps because they don’t cover them up at night?

Happy planting, and PSA for those in Sonoma County- it is still too cold for tomatoes! Buy starts while the selection is still good, but bring inside at night or make sure to cover if out in the garden! We want 55 degrees or warmer, and this morning was 36 degrees!


what to look for when buying veggie starts

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