Every winter, I make a plan for which veggies, flowers, and herbs I’m going to start from seed throughout the growing season. Some of them get a head start indoors, while others I wait until the timing is right for direct seeding outside. I also have a little list of seeds for succession planting in the summer after certain crops, like garlic and peas. In this article, I’m going to share tips on direct seeding, as well as explain which crops benefit from being started outside.
What is direct seeding?
Direct seeding—or direct sowing—is when you plant seeds right in the garden instead of starting seeds indoors under lights or in sunny windows, or purchasing seedlings at the nursery. There are a few different crops that benefit from being direct sown. Some cool-season crops, especially root vegetables, don’t do well when transplanted, and some crops that prefer warm soil before you plant seed, like zucchini and melons, can be sown outside when the timing is right.
In colder climates like mine, some plants, like tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, need that head start indoors. And while some seeds don’t mind being sown both indoors and outdoors, others perform much better if they’re direct-sown in the ground. Some vegetables and herbs can experience transplant shock from the roots being disturbed while pulling them out of a cell pack and planting them in the garden. Others, like dill, grow a long taproot so they also benefit from not being disturbed once the seeds germinate.
Prepping your garden
Before you rip open those seed packets, you need to do a little site preparation. You don’t want to sow seeds in hard-packed soil. You want the soil to be loose and workable. It’s a good idea to amend your soil with compost before sowing seeds. You can add organic matter in the fall or in the spring. Be sure to remove any weeds before you add soil amendments.
Sowing seeds in the garden
Grab a tray to hold your seeds, a marker, tags, etc. It can also catch any seeds that spill so they don’t go to waste. Read each seed packet carefully. It should explain everything that variety of plant needs. For seeds that can be planted indoors and out, read the recommendations and timelines for both scenarios. If seeds should simply be direct-sown outdoors, that’s what the instructions will state. Check your region’s frost-free date so you know whether the seeds you’ve chosen are to be sown before or after.
There are also different ways to plant seeds. Some seeds can be broadcast, or scattered, about. This is what I do with poppy seeds. They’re so tiny, it’s easier to gently shake the packet around the garden where you’d like them planted than to individually plant them.
For some seeds, you can simply take a dibber or the tip of your trowel to create a narrow furrow or trench in the soil to the depth you’d like it to be. Once you’ve sown your seeds, you simply have to gently swipe the soil over the hole.
Some seeds, like zucchini, pumpkins, and squash, benefit from being planted in low mounds. The seed package will provide the details for spacing.
Accessories for direct seeding
There are some tools that make direct seeding easier. There is the Seeding Square, a template that you lay over the garden soil. Spaced holes sized to the right diameter indicate where to sow seeds. I have a ruler like this one with measurements that show how far apart to plant seeds. You simply lay it in the garden and drop the seeds into the appropriate, pre-formed holes. For tiny seeds, there are special seeder tools that distribute small seeds evenly.
Once you’ve sown a row, you’ll want to add a plant tag at the end of it, so you remember what you’ve planted. I use plastic tags that you can write on with marker. There are also plastic covers that are like little storage compartments. They allow you to put your seed packet or a label inside and they will keep them dry.
Thinning direct-sown seeds
The seed packet will mention how far apart to plant seeds and how deeply, but sometimes it’s really hard to sow teeny tiny seeds at the right distance. It’s easier to pour some in your hand and gently shake them into the planting area. And then later, when they start to emerge, you can thin them. A beet, for example, will not thrive if there are other beets competing for that space. This can be a painful process for a gardener because you don’t want to sacrifice any of those plants. But it’s a necessary step. The good thing is, you can eat those sprouts that you pull. Rinse and toss those beet or radish greens in a salad.
To thin, you’ll need to get in there either with ungloved fingers (gloves make it a more finicky task) or tweezers. Choose the seedling that’s going to stay and gently remove everything around it. The package should tell you how far apart each veggie should be.
To water, you’ll want to spray very gently so you don’t wash all your seeds away. You can use a watering can with a rain spout or the gentle setting on your hose nozzle.
Seeds direct-owned by nature
When plants go to seed, you can pull them out to make room for another crop or collect the seeds before removing the plants. You can also let the seeds fall into the garden. This often results in more plants. I’ve had this happen with kale, oregano, cilantro, and dill, as well as annual flowers, like cosmos. I’ve also had seeds for warm-season crops, like tomatoes and tomatillos, come up the following year when I’ve let the fruits to decompose in the soil over the winter instead of pulling them out in the fall.
Vegetable crops for your direct seeding list
Annuals that can be direct sown
- Bachelor’s buttons
Herbs to direct sow