As you’re planning your vegetable garden for this year, you’re probably thinking seeds, seeds, seeds. But not everything in the garden needs to begin with seeds. In some cases, plants started by someone else are a convenient or even economical choice. And some crops, like potatoes, are grown from last season’s tubers rather than from seeds.
Here are some crops you might consider giving a little head start by purchasing plants, tubers, bulbs, etc. Most of these will also be available in local garden centers in the proper season, but if you order them from seed companies now, you will have a much wider choice of varieties, and they will ship at the right time for planting.
We talk about “seed potatoes,” but in fact potatoes are nearly always vegetatively propagated: clones of their parents. Potato plants do sometimes produce seeds, and you can try growing these into plants, but you’ll get a different potato than what the parent plant produced (and it might not be very good, plus it’ll take a long time for the plant to grow).
Potato tubers for planting are bought by the pound and shipped in the early spring. Prices vary a lot, so check around; the more unusual types often cost more. Don’t plant potatoes from the grocery store, as these may spread disease; purchase certified disease-free seed potatoes. Read about growing potatoes.
Many seed companies and specialty growers will ship you sweet potato slips, which are skinny little barely-rooted plants sprouted from a saved sweet potato root. They usually arrive looking pretty terrible, but most will revive when planted (after the weather has warmed in mid-May or later!) and given some water. Some local and online vendors will sell you sweet potato plants, which have been grown on a bit in pots and are less likely to die on you – and of course you will pay more for the privilege!
You can also grow your own sweet potato slips. Check out our growing sweet potato page for a video.
Onion seed is widely available, and onions are easy to grow from seed. So why might you want to buy already-started plants instead? Time and space! Onion plants need to go in the ground in April, and they need time to grow large enough to survive the outdoors and produce bulbs in a timely fashion, so they need to be started indoors… well, about now. If you’ve got your seed-starting operation up and running, and know you’ll have space for a tray or two of onion plants, that’s great. If you don’t want to give up precious space or get started this early, then consider buying transplants. You usually get a bunch of 30-50 onion plants (share them around if you don’t have room for all of them) and a bigger choice of varieties than with onion sets (which are small hard onions also planted in spring, usually just named as “red” or “yellow”), though less of a choice than if you buy seeds. Seeds can also be direct-sown in early spring, but germination can be spotty outdoors and your onions will come in later in the season.
Everything I said about onions above also applies to leeks. Most seed catalogs have a limited selection of leek plants, however, so if you’re going to devote seed-starting room to an allium, make it leeks. I’ve had success direct-sowing leeks in spring, aiming for a fall harvest. Here’s more information about growing leeks.
Garlic and Shallots
Garlic and shallots are both planted as bulbs in most cases; shallots can also be grown from seed. Garlic is usually fall-planted, but that doesn’t mean you can’t think about it now, and even get your order in if you know for sure you’ll be growing it for summer 2019 harvest. As with other plants, you get a bigger selection of varieties if you order online and well ahead (though honestly most vendors don’t run out until October or so). Here’s our garlic growing page.
Shallots are usually more reliable planted in spring, though you can put them in with the garlic in fall and they’ll usually come back. This is a fun crop to grow that costs a lot at the store, so an economical choice for your garden.
Asparagus is a commitment – a perennial vegetable that takes several years to get going and then will settle in and take up space in your garden for decades. It’s such a great plant to grow, though! You can start asparagus from seed, but you’ll wait even longer for your first harvest, so consider buying crowns. These will look like a weird bundle of roots and need to be planted in well-prepared soil according to instructions. They’ll arrive in early spring and should go into the ground fairly soon. Read more about asparagus here.
You might also want to start rhubarb, horseradish, or hops from roots – or be really adventurous and try oca, yacon, wasabi, or ginger. And many common vegetables like tomatoes and peppers are available for online pre-order as plants. Yes, you’ll pay more than in local stores, but the selection is often much wider and the seedlings are in great shape on arrival. Why buy three or four seed packets just to get three or four tomato plants growing in your garden? If you have limited space, starting from seed doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Our eyes are often bigger than our gardens or our seed-starting shelves while we’re dreaming with the seed catalogs. So take a look at the pages that describe plants, roots, bulbs and tubers, and make your gardening life easier and more interesting!
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener