What are the advantages and disadvantages of starting a garden with seeds vs. clones?
A seed almost requires no formal introduction. Male plants pollinate female plants which produce seeds for the next generation. Most commercially available seeds are the result of genetic crossbreeding, producing plants with superior characteristics such as fast growth, pest resistance, or larger buds. Seeds that are feminized will most likely produce only female plants.
A clone is created by cutting branches off a mature female plant and then rooting it in a substrate like rock wool, vermiculite or perlite. Once it is rooted it is becomes an exact genetic replica of plant it was cut from.
There are a few key considerations when choosing clones or seeds to start a garden.
Seeds produce a long tap root that grows straight down with horizontal roots branching off of it. Clones do not have a tap root – roots only grow laterally from the clone stem.
A tap root is beneficial when growing outdoors because it results in a deeper roots system that can tap into the water table. Since a clone root system is shallower, it may not be able to reach down to the the water table, resulting in sub-optimal growth. A long tap root also helps anchor the plant, which is better for outdoor growth where it faces unpredictable environmental conditions such as wind.
For outdoors, seeds are often a better choice because of the long tap root. For indoors, it doesn’t matter that much because a long tap root does not provide any benefits in small containers.
A clone that is already rooted gives you a head start over a seed because a seed needs several weeks to germinate and turn into a seedling. However, if the clone is not rooted (you have to take a cutting and root the clone), a clone isn’t any faster than seeds because the rooting process takes 2 weeks.
Seeds are guaranteed to be free from diseases or pests, but clones can carry diseases or pests from the garden that spawns them. To ensure a clean start, seeds are often better.
There are many seed banks and literally hundreds of different strains available that can be easily ordered by mail. Seeds store for a long time and so seed banks can keep large inventories of different varieties on hand. Most people don’t have access to a wide variety of clones of different strains to choose from, making seeds a better choice when a selection of strains is desired.
Clones are an exact genetic duplicate of the mother plant they are taken from. They will always be female if taken from a female mother. They will have an identical pattern of growth and produce consistent, predictable results.
The genetic unpredictability is a benefit if your goal is to discover a new mother plant with desirable characteristics. The process of growing seeds and selecting the best plant to be a mother is called phenotyping – a task many growers consider exciting and enjoyable.
Seeds that are not feminized will produce approximately half male and half females. Males are usually unwanted in a garden, so this is a drawback for seeds compared to clones that are guaranteed female. Purchasing feminized seeds solves this problem.