It’s so easy to just wait until planting season and then go out and buy seedlings. But what we often find is that selections are limited to two or three varieties. And that’s fine, but if we want plants with special traits, we may be out of luck.

Variety important

That’s where seed-starting comes in. Many outlets, including the same places that offer ready-to-plant seedlings, also sell seeds, and the seed selection may comprise a far wider variety than what we can find when buying seedlings.

As an example of this, consider the humble tomato. It’s a fact that all tomatoes are not the same. Some take far longer to mature than others. And then we have hybrids and non-hybrids (so-called "heritage" varieties). Others have varying degrees of disease-resistance. And of course, some tomatoes grow as big as baseballs and others approximate the size of a grape. Finally, some tomatoes are determinate, meaning they produce fruit all at once, perfect for the home canner. Other varieties are indeterminate, meaning they keep putting out fruit all season, just the thing for those who are mostly concerned with fresh eating.

Looking at this, then, makes it plain that a tomato is not a tomato is not a tomato. Now consider the gardener who has difficulty getting tomatoes to mature ahead of the first killing frost. For that person, a short-season variety becomes the best choice. Others may garden in protected locations and can easily grow late-season types. In general, early tomatoes tend toward smaller fruits — think Early Girl — while long-season varieties offer the very largest fruits.

Given the wide variety of tomatoes available from seed, it is possible to tailor a tomato type to our own special requirements. The same holds true for other vegetables.

Lettuce varieties

Here again, it is possible to buy ready-to-plant lettuce seedlings. But since lettuce is fast-maturing, it can be direct-seeded and will still mature in just a short time.

Some outlets offer a good variety of lettuce seedlings, while others are more limited. Loose-leaf varieties such as black-seeded Simpson and oakleaf lettuce are standard fare for many gardeners. But how many of us are aware of the great variety of lettuces that we can easily grow from seed? The vast array of lettuce varieties is indeed mind-boggling.

The loose-leaf varieties, some of which are mentioned above, are easy to grow, and if sown in stages, can keep the gardener in fresh lettuce for much of the growing season. Other types require more finesse. Head lettuce, for instance, can be a little tricky, which is why loose-head types such as the butterhead varieties, give us a similar product with an easier chance for success.

Butterhead lettuces are the kind that we find in winter on supermarket shelves. They usually come packaged in a clear plastic container. Most of these are hydroponically grown in heated greenhouses. But we can grow our own by ordering seed for the variety that best suits our needs. And while loose-leaf varieties can be planted directly in the ground, it makes sense to start loose-head types indoors, since they take longer to mature.

A great number of lettuce varieties have been around for a long time, with some types dating back to the late 19th century. Others, hybrids, are bred for a number of different traits. So it’s plain to see the wisdom of shopping around for seed, even lettuce seed.

As an example of this, I am starting two different types of lettuce this year. One, “Tennis Ball,” a butterhead variety, was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, cultivated at Monticello. The other, “Green Ice,” is a looseleaf variety with a twist; it is crinkled, with a crisp texture. Green Ice is similar to the all-green looseleaf varieties sold in supermarkets. But that’s where the similarity ends. The supermarket variety just can’t compete with Green Ice that we grow in our home gardens. Freshness means everything with lettuce, and the only way to get truly fresh lettuce is to grow it at home.

Different cukes

Cucumbers, like tomatoes and lettuce, vary wildly according to type. Again, what type of cuke we purchase depends upon our personal situation. Do we mostly just want cukes for fresh eating? Then we should opt for slicing varieties, of which there are many.

But what about the gardener who wants both fresh-eating cucumbers and cucumbers to pickle? Well, there are a few varieties out there that fulfill both requirements. Perhaps a home gardener wants a cuke variety for making sweet Gherkin pickles. Then purchase a Gherkin-type cuke. Such niche varieties are not often available as started plants, but are readily found as seeds.

Taking things a step further, the various cucumber varieties have different growth habits. Some are “bush style,” meaning they will bear well without being grown on a trellis. Others require lots of space, either on the open ground or on a trellis, because of their sprawling nature. Here again, whatever specifics we desire are usually available from seed.

Even those with limited space can grow plenty of cucumbers for fresh eating. Seed companies offer a number of compact varieties with short runners that don’t need trellising.

Next, our Maine weather can be unpredictable and cucumbers, being a warm-weather crop, often die or rot in the ground due to long stretches of cool, rainy weather. Plants that are started inside and grown to a decent size before setting out have a far better chance of surviving our often-harsh conditions than do cukes that are direct-seeded in the ground.

Finally, it is necessary to exercise great care when transplanting cucumber seedlings, being careful not to damage the roots. It also helps to get the soil in the pot wet in order to remove the plant, rootball and potting soil as one unit. Plants treated this way have every chance of surviving and producing wonderful, fresh cucumbers.

In conclusion

The list of vegetable varieties available from seed is nearly endless. Not everyone will care to start their own seedlings, being content to go with whatever is available locally as seedlings. But for those with specific requirements, starting from seed is often the only way to go.

Tom’s tips

I like surprises. Good ones, that is. Which is why it is my habit to try a new variety of veggie every year. A packet of seeds doesn’t cost much, so there is little to lose. And every once in a while, these new varieties become old favorites.

One of my new vegetables this year is something called “strawberry spinach,” not a true spinach, but with a similar taste. This has good heat tolerance which makes it a fine green for midsummer eating. It also has edible, strawberry-like fruits that grow in the leaf axils (where the leafstalk meets the plant stem). All in all, it sounds like a winner. I can’t wait to be surprised.