Vegetable seedlings will be available the next time you go to your local farmers market, but depending on your priorities, you may want to wait until later this month or early June before you buy.

When I visited the Portland Farmers Market at Deering Oaks at the end of a chilly Maine April, farmers had a few vegetable seedlings on sale – but only those such as broccoli and kale that can stand a frost or otherwise chilly temperatures. The most popular seedlings – warm-weather plants such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and squash – should be available now.

“We will have the tomatoes available in mid-May,” Carolyn Snell of Snell Family Farm in Buxton told me, “but we recommend that people don’t plant until Memorial Day. Tomatoes really hate the cold.”

People who want specific varieties of seedlings often buy them well before they should be put in the ground because they are afraid the types they want will be sold out if they wait. But if you don’t care about specific varieties – you just want some cherry tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, bell peppers and banana peppers – you can wait, Snell said. The farmers won’t run out, he said.

Why buy seedlings at the farmers market as opposed to a store?

“If you come to the farmers market, you can get a lot of varieties you can’t get at the big-box store,” said Austin Chadd of Green Spark Farm in Cape Elizabeth, who also sells at the Portland Farmers’ Market. “You also can get a lot of information about the plant from the grower, what kind of plant is best for you and instructions for planting.”

Nancy and I have been buying most of our seedlings at the Portland Farmers’ Market or at local farm stands and garden centers for about five years. We used to grow our own, with an elaborate system in our cellar using warming trays and fluorescent lights, Pro Mix and liquid fertilizer. The system worked and saved us money, but it took a lot of time and – more important now that we are semiretired – required us to be home to tend the seedlings during the miserable month of March when many Mainers head someplace warmer. Even if we stay home for seedling season, sometimes we decide it is worth paying someone else to do the work rather than making hundreds of trips up and down stairs to set up and plant the seedling trays, water daily and adjust the lights as the plants grow. Our time, we’ve decided, is worth more than the money we save.

In addition, the farmers have greenhouses rather than Grow Lights and are set up to grow great seedlings – stouter, greener and overall healthier than those we used to produce.

But even if you buy seedlings, they still may need some care before they go into your garden. Like any tender young thing, they do better with a gentle, gradual introduction to the hard, cold world.

“We harden off our seedlings ourselves,” Chadd said, “but some people maybe don’t do that, so perhaps you should do it at home.”

Snell puts their seedlings in a cold frame – an unheated, outdoor space with a glass top that serves as a small greenhouse – before they are sold, which toughens them up. Still, most growers advise home gardeners to put their seedlings outside during the day and bring them inside for the night until they are planted in the garden. That way, they can acclimate to wind, bright sun and hard rain before they are set permanently outside.

The other advantage to buying seedlings at a farmers market is that you can comparison shop among 10 to 20 different farmers’ plants, all within a couple hundred yards of each other. Some farmers sell six-packs of smaller seedlings, usually a bargain compared to seedlings sold as singles. With all the choices, you can hunt for bargains, if that’s your style. But that may not be your only consideration. For instance, Chadd said his seedlings may cost a bit more – that’s because Green Spark Farm is organic. Accordingly, he has to spend more for organic seeds, planting mix and fertilizer. That said, Chad hasn’t noticed a big price spread for seedlings at the Portland market.

In addition to vegetable seedlings, we buy most of our annuals at the farmers market, where geraniums, impatiens, New Guinea impatiens, pansies, begonias and many more are spread out before shoppers in full and glorious bloom. Seeing that array warms the heart, no matter how cold or wet the spring day.

For me, one of the best things about buying seedlings at the farmers market is that I always see some seedling I’ve never tried before. I often buy such seeds as an impulse item, and I suggest you do the same. Watching them grow can entertain you all summer.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. Contact him at 767-2297 or at [email protected]