Where to buy vegetable plants and seeds. Don’t make these mistakes!

how to choose vegetable plants and seeds

At the local Garden Expo one winter, while chatting with some fellow gardeners, they mentioned their terrible luck with peppers the previous year – their fruit didn’t ripen to red – which left them feeling extremely disappointed.

I immediately asked them what variety they grow.

They looked at each other and shrugged, We don’t know. We just bought starts from our local big box store.

“Hmmm.” I thought, “That’s likely the main problem.”

We all have times when we cut corners in the garden. But, buying vegetable plants and seeds is not the place to do so.

When I was a beginning gardener I thought all varieties of one vegetable were pretty much the same. Especially things like broccoli, cabbage, and orange carrots, since there’s not much observable difference between the varieties.

I would just go to the local store selling seeds and seedlings and buy a handful of what looked good. I often had mixed results and wasn’t sure why.

It wasn’t until I started working on vegetable farms that I realized how much time and effort growers put into selecting plants and seeds that perform well in their fields.

I quickly learned that all broccoli, cabbage, and carrot varieties are not equal.

After that experience, I started to pay more attention to where I bought my vegetable seeds and plants and what varieties I was choosing to grow.

And to be honest, that was a big turning point in my gardening journey. There’s a clearly defined trajectory after that decision. I started to become much better at growing my own food.

In this post you’ll learn what to look out for and which crucial mistakes to avoid when buying vegetable plants and seeds and selecting the best varieties for your garden.

lettuce seedlings and where to buy plants

6 Mistakes to Avoid: Where to Buy Vegetable Plants & Seeds

Mistake #1: Not ordering from seeds from home.

I don’t recommend waiting until the first nice day in spring and then running out to your local garden store to stock up on seeds. This will likely lead to buying things you don’t need and wasting a lot of money.

It’s virtually impossible to stand in a garden store and patiently read the descriptions on the backs of the packets. And without this information you may end up choosing things that aren’t suited to your garden.

Over the years of meeting and talking to thousands of gardeners I’ve discovered that the most successful of them order their seeds ahead of time and are ready to go when the spring planting season hits.

That’s why ordering seed catalogs is an important first step in planning a successful season.

When using a catalog to plan your garden you’ll have plenty of time to sit down, read about the different varieties and consciously choose the ones that seem to fit your particular garden.

As we’ll learn later in this post – what varieties you choose to grow in your garden are extremely important.

Not all seed companies are created equal either. This post shares my top recommended seed catalogues as sources of reliable, productive, tasty, and beautiful vegetables.

And watch how excited I get when I find seed catalogs in my mailbox in this fun little video.

how to choose vegetable plants for garden

Mistake #2: Not knowing whether you should plant a seed or a plant.

Some vegetables do best when they’re planted in the garden as seeds, and some fare better as plants.

When you have a plan for how you’re going to plant each vegetable, you’ll be able to set yourself up for success by making sure you have the supplies you need on hand when the garden season rolls around.

It critical to know whether you need a seed or a plant for each vegetable.

This information will dictate whether you need to order seeds, start your own plants, or plan to purchase plants from your local farmers markets and nurseries.

There’s no use ordering tomato seeds from a catalog if you’re not going to start your own seeds at home.

You can’t plant a tomato seed into the ground in spring and expect a harvest. Tomato plants need to be started in advance of the spring planting season.

In an upcoming blog post I’ll break down which vegetables fall into three different categories – direct seed, transplant, or either direct seed or transplant (your choice).

choosing which vegetable plants to buy

Mistake #3: Not understanding the differences between types of seeds.

A lot of different terms and phrases get thrown around when people start talking about seeds – hybrid, heirloom, open-pollinated, GMO, and organic.

Are you a little fuzzy about what they all mean? Don’t worry, you’re not alone!

As a gardener, it’s important to know what kinds of seeds you’re buying and from whom so you can make your own educated decisions.

This blog post explains in depth the definitions and categories of seeds you’ll want to be familiar with as you dig through your catalogs.

how to buy vegetable plants and seeds

Mistake #4: Not knowing how to choose the best varieties for your garden.

Once you sit down with a cup of tea and start looking through your seed catalogs you might feel overwhelmed with all the varieties out there. There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes in the world. How do you choose which ones to grow?

Throughout my years of gardening I’ve learned that not all varieties are created equal. What variety you plant can be the difference between success and failure.

And just because a variety performs well in my home garden in Wisconsin doesn’t mean it will be as productive in a garden in Washington or Georgia.

The farmers in your local area can be a great source of information and advice.

They do a lot of trialing of different varieties from year to year, and CSA farmers in particular are focused on finding great-performing vegetable varieties since they grow them for a living.

If you have a farmer you patronize at your local market each week, consider asking her for variety recommendations.

For several years, I was having a terrible time growing Brussels sprouts. One of the local CSA farmers kept bringing beautiful Brussels sprouts to his stand each week.

One day I stopped by and asked him which variety he grew. We chatted a bit about the challenges of growing Brussels sprouts and he was happy to share his wisdom with me.

Now I grow the same variety he does and have had much better success!

Other ideas for finding stand out varieties for your garden are to ask gardeners in your local community which varieties they have the best luck with, look for variety recommendations from your local cooperative extension office (like this one for Wisconsin gardeners), and ordering from reputable seed companies that are passionate about providing high-performing varieties for small and mid-size organic farms (see my favorite seed sources here).

I’ve trialed a lot of varieties in my garden over the years and love to share my recommendations.

In this post I highlight unusual vegetable varieties that are fun to grow. Read about 15 purple varieties to spice up your garden. And learn more about how I strategically choose which varieties to grow in my garden.

how to buy different vegetable varieties

Mistake #5: Growing only one variety of a vegetable.

Often when there are failures in the garden newer gardeners blame themselves. “If I can’t grow <fill in favorite vegetable here> I must just suck at gardening.”

That’s likely not true!

We’ve already learned what variety you grow can be the difference between success and failure in your garden.

That means there’s a high percentage chance that your failures could be a result of the varieties you’re choosing, not the you the gardener. Whew!

This is exactly why it’s important to keep experimenting with different varieties, especially if you’ve been struggling with growing a particular vegetable.

You should be trialing several varieties of the same vegetable side by side in the same season if possible.

I don’t recommend planting six tomato plants of the same exact variety. Instead, it’s better to plant two to four different varieties.

When you grow more than one variety for each vegetable it allows you to compare the growth and performance of each one and to more quickly find your new favorites.

If there’s something going wrong with a vegetable, say your tomatoes keep getting blossom end rot, it’s valuable to have several different varieties growing alongside one another in the garden.

Upon closer inspection you might discover it’s only one of the varieties that’s continually being plagued by this disease, but the other varieties are doing just fine.

This information will allow you to quit growing the susceptible variety and focus on the other ones next year instead.

Don’t put all of your eggs (tomatoes?!) in one basket. Grow more than one variety for as many vegetables as possible, unless you have a proven variety that you know performs like a star every season.

how to choose vegetable plants to grow

Mistake #5: Not consulting (or even having!) past records of what you’ve grown.

There’s going to be some trial and error to find what you like and what performs well in your garden.

That’s why it’s important to keep records of what you plant each year so you can repeat the successes and ditch the failures.

As we discussed above, if you haven’t been having success with a certain vegetable in your garden, try a different variety this season. But, if you’re unclear what varieties you’ve grown in the past, that’s going to be more of a challenge.

That means it’s time to create a garden map!

Your map doesn’t have to be anything complicated. When I made my first one I simply stood in front of my garden with a pencil and piece of paper and drew a quick outline of all my garden beds.

Who cares what the map looks like! It’s more important to simply have a map and use it.

Get in the habit of taking your map out with you when you’re planting in the garden. Keep it simple and record the date of planting, vegetable, variety, and how many you planted.

Having a garden map and keeping simple records helps you become a better gardener over time. You train yourself to pay attention to what’s happening in the garden and that knowledge assists your learning and skill building from year to year.

tomato seedlings where to buy vegetable plants

Mistake #6: Not buying your plants from the right source.

Because variety can mean the difference between success and failure, where you buy your vegetable plants really does matter.

So, where should you buy your seedlings this year?

From a local vegetable farmer.

Buying from someone who is growing those same varieties with success in your area means the plants are more likely to produce a bumper crop for you, too.

You can also ask the farmer questions, get growing tips, and even ask for suggestions for her own personal favorites.

Stay away from the big box store when it comes to buying vegetable plants! The seedlings sold there are not necessarily selected to do well in your local climate.

The variety on the shelf might be more acclimated to a garden in Texas than one in Wisconsin. Those are two very different worlds.

Many days pass between the moment we tuck a seedling into the ground and harvest time.

Gardening is quite an investment in time, so it’s worth the effort to seek out varieties that are more likely to succeed in your local conditions.

This year, go to your local farmers’ market or a plant sale at a farm, find the vegetable farmer, and ask questions about the plants before you buy them.

buying vegetable plants for garden

Mistake #7: Buying plants too early.

The downtown farmers’ market in Madison, WI, where I live, starts in mid-April each year. After a long, dark, and cold winter, we Madisonians burst out of our houses and rush to the market to soak in the sights, sounds, and colors of the early spring.

It’s a wonderful yearly tradition, this first market of the year, but more often than not the weather is still pretty cold.

But, regardless of the weather, the farmers at the market are starting to sell some vegetable plants for home gardeners.

While making the rounds I often spy things like tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings for sale, and shoppers carrying around these plants.

The problem is that in Madison, you can’t plant those warm weather vegetables for at least another month. We often have frosts through mid-May, and these plants are not frost hardy.

There’s no sense in buying a plant a full month before you can plant it because you’re going to have to take care of it that whole time.

The best time to buy a seedling is right before you’re going to plant it. Let the farmer who grew it and knows how to take care of it keep it in her possession for as long as possible.

Young seedlings have special light, heat, and nutrient needs that are difficult to replicate at home unless you have your own seed starting set-up.

Yes, I know, this means that you may have to make a few shopping trips for plants. But, plant shopping is super fun!

You’ll need to buy your cool weather vegetable plants (lettuce, broccoli, kale) weeks earlier than you buy your warm weather vegetables (basil, tomatoes, egpplant), since they go into the garden weeks apart.

The best way to figure out when to buy your plants is to figure out when you’re going to plant them in your garden.

Check out this post where you’ll learn how to create your own spring planting calendar using a template I created for you.

peppers seedlings and where to buy vegetable plants

If you’d like to move towards having a garden that produces more food for you and your family, it’s time to rethink where and how you choose which varieties to grow and how you buy your vegetable plants and seeds.

Sit down in your favorite reading chair and take the time to actually read through some seed catalogs, take a trip to your local farmers market and seek out a vegetable farmer, and ask yourself and others important questions about what varieties are high performers in your area.

When you put in this extra effort I bet you’ll experience a higher level of success in your garden as a result.

Find all of my recommended garden books, tools, supplies, and more in my Amazon storefront.





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