I was reminded recently of why I really prefer to start my own seedlings (aside from the cost, of course, as starting your own is at least 10 times less expensive). I bought some commercial tomato and pepper seedlings this year, which I haven’t done in at least 10 years. But I had a major consulting project going, middle kid broke her arm, little kid sprained her hand and the big one was graduating from high school; add all that to the usual spring rush, and something had to give.
The problems with commercial seedlings are many, from my perspective. First, I am two zones below (7 vs. 9) and about a month behind the valley, which is where the garden centers are located. Naturally, said garden centers cater to the majority, which means they have things like tomato seedlings six to eight weeks before I dare plant them in the open. If I buy them for my planting time, they’re usually overgrown and root bound. Second, although the garden centers are finally offering some heirlooms, selection is limited. Third, they grow them in those “biodegradable,” plant-right-into-the-ground fiber pots.
I can manage the first problem by trimming back the plants a bit and pinching off any flowers that have started to bloom, and I can live with a limited selection. But those pots… While they may be biodegradable, from what I can see, it takes a year or so. Supposedly, the roots will grow right through the pots, lessening transplant shock and making life easier for the gardener, who just plunks them in a hole, waters and goes about her business. In reality, the roots don’t grow into the fiber, for a very good reason: the fiber is dry on the outside, and the roots are looking for water. Peel back the fiber, and you’ll see the roots growing merrily in a circle on the inside, with an occasional foray into the fiber. In other words, the plants are just as root bound as they would be in a conventional pot.
Since that was all I had, I ruthlessly cut the pot away and plunked the seedlings into the ground, watered well and crossed my fingers. The tomatoes eventually did OK (although two of the ones that were labeled as Amish Paste turned out to be a cherry tomato of some sort; another reason I don’t like commercial seedlings – you can’t trust the labels). The peppers were stunted and have never really recovered.
Oh, well, there’s always next year…