Starter plants give gardeners, especially beginning and procrastinating ones, an instant edible garden ready to mature and produce.
The alternative is starting a garden from seeds, a process that takes more time.
Seeds need to be coaxed into sprouting and then encouraged to keep growing to the point of producing crops. It’s uncertain whether seeds will germinate and how well the plants will grow.
Starters are larger than newly sprouted seeds and they already are well on their way to full growth. They’re usually ready to be planted into the ground or a container as soon as you get them home.
But not all starters at garden centers are created equally.
Some are coddled in temperate climates like that in San Diego, California, says Saul Sanchez, the grower at Green Things, a Foothills garden center.
Tucson’s harsher climate will challenge those starters to survive and thrive, Sanchez says.
“When you have a vegetable plant and you get it from a temperature of 60 or 70 degrees and put it in the ground over here in 100 degrees, it’s going to go into shock and it’s going to die,” he says.
Cooler fall and winter temperatures could similarly affect a plant grown elsewhere.
“It’s the same thing because the climate over here changes a lot,” says Sanchez. Temperatures can swing 40 degrees in 24 hours, something many plants imported from other regions or grown in temperature-controlled greenhouses won’t be ready for.
Guadalupe Velarde, the grower at eastside Mesquite Valley Growers, notices similar behavior with the stock he nurses for sale compared to California imports that the garden center also offers. The nursery also gets stock from Phoenix.
“One of the main differences is that when we grow our plants here, they’re already adapted for the weather,” says Velarde, who germinates seeds in containers.
At Green Things, seeds for veggie stock are sprouted in the greenhouse and then moved outside once roots are set.
Outdoors, the plants set (or harden) to conditions that they will likely experience when growing at your house. The weaker ones that didn’t make the transition from greenhouse to outdoors obviously aren’t available for sale.
Sanchez maintains that plants imported from temperate climates or greenhouse conditions may weaken by the time they’re sold from outdoor shelves in Tucson.
Velarde, however, doesn’t discount starters brought in from elsewhere. When he gets a shipment from California, he’ll set them out for a few days before offering them up for sale.
“After keeping a plant from California maybe a week or 10 days here at the nursery, eventually that plant re-establishes itself and ends up good,” he says. “Once they’re established, there’s not a big difference.”
Sanchez agrees that imports can adapt if first handled with care. He suggests allowing starters to sit in the shade for a while before putting them into the ground in open conditions.