Direct Sowing vs. Transplants

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It can be hard for beginning gardeners to know what should be started as seeds indoors and what should be sown directly in the ground. I’ll explain the benefits and downfalls to direct sowing and share what vegetables you should seed directly in the ground and what you should purchase as transplants.

Direct sowing is best for some plants.
Direct sowing directly in the garden is best for some vegetables.

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First, lets cover some terminology. Direct sowing is also called direct seeding. Direct sowing means that you plant the seeds directly in the ground or container where you plan to grow the plant its entire life. This method is best for seeds that are easy to germinate or have long root systems.

Direct seeding is different than starting seeds indoors. When you start seeds indoors, you have to have more equipment (such as seed starting trays, grow lights, seed starting mix) to ensure success. And eventually you will have to harden off your seedlings and transplant them to the garden.

Benefits to Direct Sowing

There are many advantages to direct sowing your fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

Direct Seeding is Cheaper

Probably the first benefit to direct seeding that most people think of is cost. It is so much cheaper to buy a pack of seeds than purchase a 6 pack of transplants (also called “starts”).

More variety

Another benefit to choosing to direct sow your garden is that you have more variety of plants to grow. When you go to a home improvement store, you probably only have 1 or 2 kinds of lettuce to choose from. You local nursery may carry a few more varieties, but you would be lucky to find more than 3 or 4 different types.

However, if you are willing to direct seed lettuce, you can find many varieties in seed catalogs. One seed catalog I recently looked at had over 35 varieties! From leaf lettuce to head lettuce to baby lettuce mixes, you have so many choices that you just won’t find in stores.

You have to direct sow some crops

And there are just some vegetables that it is almost impossible to transplant. Root crops like beets, turnips, carrots, and parsnips don’t take well to being moved. They MUST be sown directly in the ground.

Other crops have no real advantage to starting seeds early or purchasing transplants so it’s just as easy to seed them directly. Vegetables like squash, zucchini, and cucumbers, show no real benefit to starting them early indoors. The days to harvest are virtually the same. And direct seeding is much easier than starting seeds indoors under a grow light.

Zucchini sprouting from seed.
Zucchini sprouting from seed planted directly in the garden.

I tested squash one year to see if starting indoors really made a difference versus direct sowing. I started seeds indoors about 3 weeks before my last frost. As soon as my last expected frost date passed, I planted some seeds directly in the ground and transplanted my squash seedlings on the same day. Despite having a 3 week head start, I only harvested squash about 4 days sooner from the transplanted seedlings.

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Faster to direct seed

And some vegetables just take too much room to start early. It would be almost impossible to start enough peas, beans, or corn indoors, even for a small garden. And it would take soooo long to transplant each little plant into the garden.

Unfortunately, you will see many of these plants for sale at garden centers. I almost always see squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and watermelon starts locally. Heck, I’ve even seen corn seedlings for sale. 🙄

Disadvantages to Direct Sowing

However, there are some disadvantages to direct sowing in your garden.

The soil isn’t warm enough

First, many seeds require the soil to be a certain temperature before they germinate. If you try to plant them in the ground too early, they may rot. If you live in a climate that has a short growing season, it may also be difficult to get seeds to germinate and grow large enough to produce a harvest in your short gardening window.

Lots can happen while waiting for the seeds to sprout

Another disadvantage to direct seeding is that in the garden, seeds are exposed to all sorts of weather and pest pressure. Seeds can get washed away in heavy rain. Ants have been known to carry off seeds leaving nothing left to grow. A sudden cold snap can make the seeds difficult to germinate. And the seeds are competing for nutrients against weed seeds when trying to sprout.

The garden area also needs to be kept moist while the seeds are sprouting. Insufficient or inconsistent watering can cause the seeds to fail to germinate.

You will use more seed

Swiss chard is an easy crop to direct sow.
Swiss chard is an easy crop to direct sow in the garden. However, this patch will need to be thinned very soon.

Finally, you will use more seed direct sowing than starting seeds indoors. When you direct sow, you need to use more seed to make up for lower germination rates. It is also difficult to plant small seeds with exactly the proper spacing, so I usually plant a bit extra to allow for this. Then, once the vegetables have sprouted, you’ll have to go back and thin them.

Start as seed directly in the garden or container

  • basil
  • beans
  • beets
  • bok choy
  • cantaloupe
  • carrots
  • cilantro
  • corn
  • cucumbers
  • dill
  • kale
  • lettuce
  • okra
  • parsley
  • parsnips
  • peas
  • pumpkins
  • radishes
  • spinach
  • squash
  • Swiss chard
  • turnips
  • watermelons
  • zucchini

Start indoors or purchase plants

You will notice a few plants on both lists. That is because while you can direct sow some of these, beginning gardeners may find it easier to purchase transplants.

  • basil
  • broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  • cauliflower
  • cilantro
  • eggplant
  • lettuce
  • peppers
  • tomatoes

Flowers that you can sow directly in the ground or containers

If you are looking for a few flowers to add to your regular garden or containers, these flowers are easy to direct seed in your garden.

  • cosmos
  • marigolds
  • morning glories
  • nasturtiums
  • poppies
  • snapdragons
  • sweet peas
  • sunflowers
  • zinnias

How to direct sow seeds in your garden

Since there are so many advantages to direct sowing, and many vegetables do better starting that way, even most beginning gardeners will want to direct seed at least part of their garden.

First, be sure to sow your seeds at the proper time. Some vegetables need to be grown in cool weather while some must be planted after your last expected frost. Learn more about the difference between cool season and warm season vegetables.

a pea plant in bloom
A snap pea blooming in the garden. Peas are cool season vegetables and need to be planted directly in the ground in late winter or early spring.

To direct sow, you need to prepare your garden bed by loosening the soil. Seeds have a difficult time sprouting in compacted soil. Remove any weeds from the planting area.

Plant the seeds at the depth suggested on the seed packet. Lightly press the soil down on top of the seeds. Water well, but water gently so you don’t wash the seeds away. Label your planting areas using some type of plant marker. (You can make your own plant markers or purchase plant tags that you can write on.)

Each day, check the moisture in your garden and water if it seems the least bit dry. Seeds need consistent moisture to germinate. Soaking the ground one day and letting it dry out completely before watering again is a disaster for a little seed.

Watch for the seeds to sprout and pull any weeds that pop up. Keep the ground moist, but not soaking wet as the sprouts start to grow. Before long, you’ll have some beautiful seedlings growing in your garden. Then its time for the 3 W’s – weed, water, and wait for the harvest.

What do you direct sow in your garden?

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Squash and peas germinate best when direct sown in the planting area.
Squash and peas germinate best when direct sown in the planting area.

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