Should you chuck seeds straight into the garden or grow them in modules or seedling trays first? Knowing where and how to plant could be the factor that takes your garden from good to great.
First, it’s important to remember that plants are not so different from people. They each have their own set of likes and dislikes and, because of this, there’s no single rule to guide you through the planting process. However, understanding the basics of direct sowing and transplanting is critical and taking time with your plants — getting to know them as individuals — is your golden ticket. Caring for seedlings from start to finish with a little extra personal attention can not only increase plant survival and health but also optimize your growing season while maximizing space.
BENEFITS OF TRANSPLANTING SEEDLINGS
Seeds have almost everything they need inside them to germinate and thrive. Give them a place to grow, add water, the right amount of heat and light and the magic begins. But as we all know, this is also where promise can turn to frustration in an instant. One minute your seedlings can go from hardy and robust to leggy and yellow, wilted with disease or simply disappear — the easy lunch of a passing bird, snail or other visitor.
Control the Environment
Growing seeds in paper pots, modules or seedling trays allows you to control the environment in which they grow. Providing protection from the elements and garden pests while also controlling soil, moisture, fertility and heat. This is particularly important if you’d like to get a jump start on your growing season. Plant seeds indoors or in the comfort of a cold frame or greenhouse when it’s still cold outside and move them out to the garden when the weather warms — chances are they’ll be ready to flourish.
Starting seeds indoors also gives your crops more time to mature within the growing season. This is critical if you live in a cooler climate or you’re working with slow growing plants. Pumpkins, peppers, melons, leeks, cabbage, gourds and tomatoes all need more time to mature.
Maximize Garden Space
Your garden may be like mine, jam packed with little extra room. In fact, every square inch counts, which is another reason why I sow as many seeds as possible in trays or pots and transplant them out when ready. I can dedicate the garden space I have to the plants that need it.
I’m also not second guessing my crop, waiting to see what might come up. When transplanting, the seed is germinated, it’s showing vigor and my chances for a successful garden are more likely from the outset. This is particularly important to me because I need to optimize a limited number of warm summer days.
The saying, “sow little and often,” is one to live by, especially if you’re a small space gardener. Sowing a handful of seeds in trays on a frequent basis means you’re more likely to enjoy a continual harvest. Time planting so when one crop has reached the end of its life cycle there are replacement seedlings waiting in the wings for transplanting. Try this with greens, tender herbs, bush beans and other plants that don’t take long to reach maturity. Use the “days to maturity” information on your seed packet to get the timing right but also take notes as you go. Days to maturity in your garden could be very different from those given on the packet.
BENEFITS OF DIRECT SOWING
There are many plants that perform just fine or better if sown directly in the garden. Annuals, plants with large seeds, plants that require weathering, plants with fragile root systems and root crops being some.
Minimize Root Disturbance
Seeds sown directly in the garden can grow where they’re planted. There are no interruptions in growth due to moving them from one place to another. However, biodegradable paper pots and coir pots help keep root disturbance to a minimum, there is still a whole new environment to get used to. The bottom line is plants must recover from transplanting.
Hardening Off Not Required
Plants that are grown in a protected environment with the intention of transplanting out to the garden must be transitioned slowly to the outside world. This is known as hardening off. To harden off seedlings take them outside for a short period of time each day for a week. Start with an hour the first day adding an hour a day for a week. After the 7th day, when they’ve been left out for a total of 7 hours, they’ll be ready to transplant.
Root crops such as carrots don’t take well to containers. If their tap root comes in contact with an object such as the bottom of a container it will most likely fork or grow in a funny shape. It’s best to sow them directly into the garden when the temperatures are just right (they prefer warmer soil temperatures for germination). Not all root crops are as fussy, but if you have room and the weather is in your favor, plant them straight into the garden and save yourself the step of transplanting.
Some plants, such as wildflowers like lupines, require environmental weathering to germinate. You can do this yourself by scaring the seeds or let nature do the work for you. Scatter seeds in the fall for spring blooms.
Self-sowers & Volunteers
I have a soft spot for volunteers and generally encourage heirlooms, open pollenated veggies, edible flowers and annuals to self seed. Let your plants live out their life cycle before cleaning up. Leave a few fruits such as tomatoes and cucumbers to decompose in the garden. Let sunflowers, calendula, violas and other annuals drop their seeds. I wish the seeds I grew matched their vigor — they always come up at the perfect time and end up being the best plants. Move them about if you must but let them grow whenever possible.
No Special Equipment Required
Direct sowing seeds is simple. You don’t need anything special, no grow lights or special containers, just a place to plant, good soil, water and sun.
BEST DIRECT SOW PLANTS
- large seeds (that are planted deeply)
- root crops
- swiss chard
- onion sets
- sweet alyssum
- sweet peas
BEST PLANTS FOR TRANSPLANTING
- brussel sprouts
- melons (though they don’t like to be in containers too long)
*Note: The lists above are suggestions. I often start plants like kale, chard and corn in containers and plant them out when the soils warm up. Beans can be sown directly in the garden but if you’d like to guarantee your crop, start them in containers first. I tend to grow about half my hollyhocks in containers and direct sow the rest. In the end your plants will show you what’s best.
For information and tips on transplanting and growing plants from seed read these links: