Direct Seeding vs. Transplants

How I used to plant my veggies.

How I used to plant my veggies. An 8 inch spacing guide and some seedlings back in 2009.

To direct sow or transplant, that is the question. I’m as indecisive as Hamlet when it comes to this question. Some caveats here: we live in a warm climate where you can direct sow almost anything unless you want to get an early start on tomatoes and peppers. And we don’t have to start seedlings indoors.

Another thing to note–I fell under the spell of John Jeavons and even took his class up in Willits a few years back. Jeavons transplants everything. One of the best vegetable gardens I ever grew was done following his instructions to the letter. But I’m not big on double digging, nor do I look forward to the twice a year transplanting chores.


Look what’s growing in the new raised beds–nada!

This year I tried to direct sow the summer garden instead of growing trays of seedlings and I have to say I’m not getting good results. A week of temperatures over 100° F didn’t help. Nor did the long delay getting the vegetable garden planted while I attempted to evict skunks from the backyard. I know I sound like the president of an excuse factory. Let’s just say it’s good that we’re not trying to subsist on our home grown produce.

My conclusion? I’m going to have to go back to sowing seeds in flats and transplanting them out in the garden. It may not be the best practice from a horticultural perspective, but in terms of my own personality and the quirks of our little yard, it may still be the best option.

Dear readers, where do you come down on this question? Do you sow direct or do you transplant? How does your climate influence this decision?

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  1. With the exception of tomatoes which volunteer in every bare spot of earth in my yard and need to be hoed out constantly, I have no luck at all with direct seeding. OK, I direct seed carrots just fine.

    The irony is that when I tried to start heirloom tomatoes from seed that was a disaster since I don’t have any grow lights. But they come up as weeds in my growing beds.

    • PS Those are some gorgeous growing beds. Get some plants in there toot sweet (sic)! ; >

    • I think I’m going to end up buying seedlings this year at the farmers market since I’m so far behind.

    • Rainey,
      I don’t have grow lamps. I just set the seeds on a table all around a regular table lamp with a 60 watt bulb. It worked just fine. Almost every seed germinated.

    • I actually never had a problem getting tomato seeds to germinate. What happened is that without grow lights they got so leggy they were virtually useless.

      In the absence of lights with the proper spectrum I tried to grow my seedlings on a counter under halogen lights. They weren’t very helpful. Too close they burned the tiny seedlings. Too far from the source they were no more effective than conventional lights. And this was in a bright room with floor-to-ceiling windows on 2 walls roughly south- and west-facing.

  2. We start seeds for tomatoes and peppers in seed blocks in January. We start some other stuff a bit later like eggplants and herbs, also in seed blocks. At the time we set those things out into the raised beds, we then direct sow things like cucumbers, beans and squash. We do have a small green house for starting the seeds. Our biggest set back seems to be insects eating the seed starts. Sprouting one day and gone the next.

    • Hey Karen- curious about your tomatoes – do you have them under lights? I usually end up buying tomato plants – the biggest I can find. I tried to do seedlings, but my lights weren’t strong enough and they got really leggy

  3. Winds! We have had lots of wind almost everyday this year, lasting beyond our ‘windy’ season. Heat! Near 100 degree days only to have 60 degrees a couple of days later. The seedlings are stressed and not doing well. Frustrating! And the drought isn’t helping either. I have to water everyday. Of course I am in the high desert so what do I expect? Gardening is a challenge! Of course I thought gardening in Tujunga was a challenge too with the heat and Santa Anna’. But sometimes I wish I were down there in the valley in smogsville! (OK, So I am still learning ‘desert gardening’)

    • I guess I should have answered the question! Everything is from seeds this year. The lettuce is doing great as is the cilantro but the rest are struggling with the weather.

  4. We are growing in pots in a damp climate. Everything gets transplanted, because otherwise the slugs and snails mow the seedlings at the first opportunity. I don’t even try stuff like carrots any more. The local cats also like to dig over any ‘barren’ inch of soil. I like having young plants on hand to plug gaps and to give away too.

  5. I used to grow everything from seed simply because I love the absolute miracle of a seed – a whole plant from a tiny black speck?Are you kidding me? But some things just didn’t do as well as others. I always plant tomatoes from transplants and am much happier for it. Carrots, sure, seeds. Peas? Beans? Seeds. I guess it really depends, there are so many variables and each garden has its own quirks.

  6. Start seeds in the greenhouse, except beans/peas/carrots

    Problem here is little critters; mice, ground squirrels, even birds, grab the sprouts as soon as they come up. Last year they got my green beans, my corn. Now, when I direct sow, put up little cages around the plantings to keep them safe. in general its a lot easier to start the seeds and transplant

  7. When my beds were new, years ago, I tossed in the romaine seeds and it was the most glorious thing! The whole bed was full of tight little lettuces, and we were eating it every day. But that was then. This year I over came myself and just bought some plants and put them in the pot. I think I was a ‘start from seed snob’ for a while, but I am over it. I have to go with the flow and do what works for me at that particular time. 🙂

  8. I do whatever is easiest, if I can get away with it. Even easier than direct seeding is letting some of your plants go to seed, then the next season you just find stuff growing. I soak all my seeds overnight, it helps a lot w/ germination and its a good idea to water everyday as it not like you can get away with the top drying out because the plants at the early stage do not have roots going deeper. Plant a lot everywhere, then you be assured of having enough coming up. Of course of you like each plant in it proper place in nazi, neat little rows, this won’t work for you, but a lot of other stuff won’t either. I can do without the whole routine of making the soil and blocks for starts, then you have to baby them and harden them off. Unfortunately its too cold where I live to direct seed tomatoes + peppers, squash etc.

    • I so agree! Often it’s the volunteers that stoke my enthusiasm for getting things cleaned up and underway. I get beans, tomatoes, artichokes and cucurbits without fail. In our climate I also get the hardy plant that overwinters like jalapeño. That’s why it’s really worth the effort to begin from heirloom seeds and seedlings that you can count on to be reliable in future generations.

      One year I planted potatoes and I think it was another 4 or 5 years before I got all the tiny ones dug up. That would have been great enough but the thing was they weren’t planted where they got enough sun to thrive and I was trying to replace them with flowers. Garlic did that to tho for fewer years.

  9. I live in zone 6 so I’ve always started my the tomatoes,peppers etc, and seeded the rest. However after having awful luck with growing lettuce and spinach I started them in pots the past couple of years with great success. I have a set up in the basement with lights and trays and I usually move the seedlings to the small plastic greenhouse that goes up at the end of March.
    Of course this year was a total disaster with the cold winter, everything is delayed and I might have to buy some plants or try for a fall harvest.

  10. I am in the midwest in zone 6, with terrible clay soil. I can direct sow any quick growing annuals, like the cucurbits (cukes, squash, etc), corn,beans, radishes, dill, basil, etc. Tomatoes need a longer growing season, so I get seedlings. I have started stuff from seed for a fall garden, as we are typically very dry in august. I get sweet potato ‘slips’ also, although it is possible to grow your own slips.

  11. I’m in Texas, we get maybe 3 days below freezing per year. I could probably direct sow, but I start the seeds inside instead. There are a lot less surprises that way. And, I can keep a light on them for much longer than they would get in the short winter days outside, giving them a faster start.

  12. I do both. Transplants to get a jump on the season and successive plantings of seeds (beans, cukes, squash, winter toms, etc.) to extend the season.

  13. I’m in Houston and I did both this year and both were hit and miss. This year I transplanted tomatoes, tomatillos, carrots, beans and peppers with luck – not so much with the curcubits, lettuce, greens and okra (shockingly). It’s difficult to find the right timing between the heat and the torrential rains that flood my backyard.

  14. We do transplants in our southern California spot because the rolie polies eat everything. Question: do you see yourself staying in LA as the weather continues to change? If it just gets hotter and dryer and increasingly flammable around here, at some point do you start looking at real estate elsewhere?

    • I wonder the same thing myself, but I suspect Erik will want to stay here until LA is a pile of glowing cinders.

  15. I recently moved from Eastern Washington to Eastern Kansas. Back in WA I’d learned that with my well-drained, enriches, loamy soil, mild winds and reliable moisture in the spring I could direct seed about anything successfully. My tomatoes sprung up out of the compost and managed to produce just soon enough for a lot of canning, so I did start at least 10 tomato plants indoors for fruit by late June.

    Out here in KS though… its 100*, then its 36*, the winds are usually between 10 and 30 mph, its barely rained, there’s a lot of clay in the soil and oh yeah…. the grasshoppers. Its like an Egyptian plague out here. I will be spending a lot of money on starts this year.

    • That sounds like my situation in southern Illinois. we have more reliable rainfall than Kansas (at least based on what I have heard on the news), but terrible soil, incredible weather fluctuations, at least this month, and then the bugs.

  16. For the past several years we’ve started our seeds inside under grow lights. This year, though, we must’ve hit a bad batch of soil or something because all of our seeds failed…they all germinated but then stunted right as the first true leaves began to emerge. I did two cycles of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs and both batches did this. So, this year we are direct sowing and hoping to get a few tomato starts from a friend. Starting early is definitely better for us since our growing season is only ~150 days on a good year.

  17. We transplant tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and basil. Everything else we direct sow. We live in Tennessee, so I feel like springtime provides us with a good balance of heat and rain.

  18. The only seeds I direct sow are the legumes, everything else I prefer the predictability of sowing seeds in sterile seed starting mix. I’ve kept this schedule for the last 4 yrs and it has worked out well:

    peppers/egglant, sow feb 1 – plant out 1st of april
    tomatoes, herbs, sow feb 15 – plant out last week of march
    squash and cucumbers, sow mar 1 – plant out mid march
    beans direct sow between mid feb and beginning of march

    Every year I start over 100 tomato plants and get about 99% germination and they all survive to be planted out or given away. I know you don’t like peat products and in the main I agree with you but I only need a small bag each year of the sterile, soiless mix and it really helps. I am not a fan of coir.

  19. I live in the Sonoran desert and growing veggies is a bit challenging. I try both and it depends on the weather. Last year I had mountains of squash, cukes and lettuce from direct sow. But tomato transplants did nothing. This year nothing from direct sow- transplants are slow and producing mostly male flowers. But transplanted tomatoes are great! I had a bumper crop of artichokes- then the wild bunnies found them.

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  21. In both my home garden and urban farm I work at near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (zone 6) we start most veggies as seedlings and transplant out. I have the most success with this. The only things I direct seed are successions of cilantro, arugula (and other quick greens) and radishes, carrots and the like. We use one warm and one cool fluorescent light in shop light fixtures affixed to shelves with chains that can raise or lower them to keep them very close to the seedlings. Then, the seedlings have to be gradually hardened off to the sun, outside temperatures and wind and then we are good to go!

  22. I learned my lesson this year. Anyone who can transplant dill is some sort of miracle worker. Other than that, it’s transplants all the way for me.

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