Buying vegetable plants

If you just want to grow a few vegetables or have suffered losses with early sowings, buying plants is a great way to play catch-up. Buying plants also allows you to grow vegetables if you do not have the facilities to raise them from seed yourself or when you’ve missed vital sowing dates earlier in the spring. You can buy growing vegetable plants as seedlings, very young plants or larger plants that are ready for planting out.

Choosing seedlings.

Buying vegetables as seedlings is a good way to buy a lot of a single variety as well as varieties that are expensive to buy from seed or are difficult to germinate. The best selection is available from seedsmen by mail order, but you may find a few common varieties in garden centres. The seedlings should not have reached the ‘true leaf’ stage, so are ready for pricking out immediately into standard seedtrays or cellular seed trays. The ‘shelf-life’ of vegetable seedlings is only a few days, so find out when your local garden centre is getting its next delivery before you visit.

Choosing plants.

You’ll find a wider range of vegetables available as young plants. Those sold in cellular trays with 2 or 3 true leaves, may need to be grown on for a week or so before they are ready to plant out. You’ll also find larger plants supplied in either cellular trays or strips, like bedding plants, that are ready for planting out. Vegetable plants are generally the best option if you are a novice at vegetable growing or want to raise just a few plants of a particular variety. Don’t be tempted to buy large plants that are struggling for space, because these will probably have been kept in the garden centre too long and will not establish as quickly once planted out as small and compact plants.

Preparing the ground for vegetable plants

Dig the ground thoroughly removing all weeds and other debris a couple of weeks before your plants are due to arrive. Incorporate as much organic matter as you can for all but root crops, including carrots and parsnips. Cover the soil with a polythene sheet to help warm the soil while it is allowed to settle. Then, just before planting, hoe off any weed seedlings that have germinated and sprinkle a general fertiliser (such as growmore or blood, fish and bone) over the area before working it into the surface with a soil rake.

Planting out

Vegetable plants will grow perfectly well in open soil, but with some you maybe better off planting through cross-shaped slits made in a sheet of black polythene laid across the surface of the soil. The polythene will act as a mulch: preventing weeds and reducing the need for watering. You can disguise the polythene with a thin layer of soil or chipped bark if appearance is important. Vegetables that are suitable for growing through a polythene mulch include cabbages, cauliflowers, Brussels sprouts courgettes, marrows, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, sweet corn and tomatoes. Most vegetables are planted out in rows to achieve the spacing given in the table. The exception is sweet corn, which is wind pollinated, so needs to be planted in a square block of say six-by-six plants to get the best yields.

When you receive your plants make sure you are ready to plant them out immediately. Hardy vegetables such as brassicas and lettuce can go straight into prepared ground in the garden (see below) provided they have been hardened off properly. On receipt, water the plants while in their container and allow to drain. If the weather is warm and the soil dry, water the planting hole before planting each plant. Plants in strips should have their roots teased apart very carefully to minimise damage and disturbance. Once planted at the correct spacing, do not let them run short of water until well established. Tender vegetables, such as courgettes, marrows, runner beans, tomatoes and sweet corn, need to be kept somewhere frost free until the threat of night frosts is over (usually early May in milder regions and early June in colder regions). The young, tender plants may have been kept in a warm environment before dispatch, so will need to be hardened off carefully during the week or so before planting out. If a late cold snap threatens after planting, cover tender vegetables with cloches, garden fleece or sheets of newspaper overnight. Tender vegetables destined for the greenhouse can be planted out into a frost-free greenhouse border, growing bags or larger pots straight away. If inclement weather or time constraints cause delays in planting, any plants kept in their containers for more than three weeks will need feeding using a dilute liquid fertiliser.

Protecting young vegetable plants

Some pests can cause a lot of damage to specific crops. Fortunately, many are easy to prevent. For example you can prevent flying pests such as aphids, carrot fly, cabbage rootfly and cabbage butterflies gaining access to your plants by covering them with crop covers such as insect proof mesh and garden fleece. Bear in mind that garden fleece traps heat too, so is only suitable early in the season. Alternatively, put up a 75cm (30in) high corral of polythene sheeting or insect-proof mesh around carrot crops to keep out the surface-skimming carrot fly adults, and place collars made out old carpet underlay around new brassica plants to prevent cabbage rootfly adults laying eggs. Slugs can be a serious problem in many gardens in some years. You can protect individual plants with a 10cm (4in) high plastic ring made from a cut-down large plastic drinks bottle. If you don’t mind using chemicals, another option is to scatter slug pellets in between vulnerable plants.


Some vegetables, including root crops such as beetroot, carrots, parsnips and swede as well as members of the onion family need watering only while they are getting established. Others need watering at critical stages of the crop’s development:

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