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gardening basics
Published February 6, 2023 by Nicole Burke

Direct vs Indirect Seeding: What Does It Mean?

Filed Under:
beginner gardener
sowing seed
seed starting
garden tips
direct seeding

What Does Sow Mean in Gardening?

To sow in gardening simply means to plant a seed by either scattering it over the soil or by placing it inside a small hole or mound in the soil and then covering it.

We gardeners like to think we're in charge of this process, but some plants can also self-sow. That just means a mature plant drops seeds as it's completing its life cycle, and then new plants pop up from those dropped seeds the next year. (Yay, free plants!)

Sowing your own seeds instead of buying plants from the nursery comes with several advantages: you can choose from a near-infinite number of plant varieties instead of the one or two types the store offers, you can work on your own timeline, and you can save a lot of money if you plan to grow a large quantity of a certain type of plant. Just one package with hundreds of seeds inside tends to cost about the same as a single plant start (or a baby plant) you'd buy from the store.

What Does Sow Mean in Gardening?

What Does It Mean to Direct Sow vs Transplant?

When gardeners are in charge of sowing seeds, we have two different options for how and where we place those seeds so that they will ideally germinate (or sprout) and grow into healthy plants for our garden. The first option is to place the seeds in the exact spot in the garden we'd like them to spend their entire lifecycle—this is to direct sow.

The second option is to start the seeds indoors in seed starting trays or soil blocks and then allow the plant to grow into a seedling while nice and safe inside. Once the plants are ready to be moved and the weather outside is ideal, the seedlings are then transplanted to the garden space. This is indirect sowing.

I do a combination of direct sowing and transplanting for my garden, as do many gardeners. The best method will depend on the specific type of plants you're growing and your situation (your climate, your garden setup, your gardening experience, your available time, etc.).

Let's look at each method a bit more.

transplanting vegetables to the garden

Direct Sowing/Direct Seeding

Direct seeding is exactly what it sounds like. You take seeds and put them directly in the soil—do not pass go and do not collect $200. You pop those seeds right in the ground where you want them to grow and expose them to the elements immediately.

Direct sowing is the way to go for any plant that you want to grow dozens and dozens of, which makes it my favorite way to plant seeds for my salad greens. I fill entire raised beds with lettuce seed, for instance. It would take a commercial-level setup in my house to start that many lettuce seeds indoors, and then I would spend entire days transplanting that many lettuce plants to my garden space. It's much better to scatter lettuce seeds over the soil and then ensure they stay moist for the next couple of days while they sprout.

Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of direct seeding.

sowing seeds

Advantages of Direct Sowing/Seeding

This method is very simple. Planting seeds right in your garden space requires much less time and effort and even fewer supplies than starting seeds indoors and transplanting them. Typically, you just plant the seeds and then keep them well-watered until they germinate. You don't have to worry about using heat mats and moving things outside at just the right moment. You get to let nature do all the work for you! If you're just getting started in the garden or if you like to keep things simple, I highly recommend direct seeding.

Some plants also just don't like being moved. (More on that later.) Plants that should be direct sown have a pretty short lifespan, and if you try to move them, they can end up bolting prematurely, which means those plants will finish up their time in your garden much sooner than if you had started them directly in that spot.

Even plants that can handle being transplanted might slow their growth for a bit after the big move. I often find that plants started outdoors after my final frost date will catch up in growth to those I started indoors 4 or even 6 weeks earlier and moved outdoors.

Disadvantages of Direct Sowing/Seeding

You have very little say over what happens to your seedlings if you start them in the great outdoors. You'll want to sow them in great nutrient-rich soil to give them the best start possible, but you obviously can't control the weather. One good rain can wash all your carefully planted little seeds away. Follow the tips below to protect your newly sown crops.

direct seeding tips

Direct Seeding Tips for Success

Direct seeding requires much less time and effort than seed starting indoors, but there are still things you should do to increase your chances of filling your garden with lots of robust plants. Here are nine tips for direct sowing.

Tip #1: Match Your Plant to the Season

Before you decide to direct seed a plant, make sure that you'll be growing it in the optimal season. Learn the predicted last frost date for your town or city by checking here or by searching “[your city’s name] last frost date". If the seed packet tells you a plant won't survive frost or that the seeds need warmer soil to germinate, wait until all danger of frost has passed to sow your seeds outdoors. It's important to pay attention to the upcoming temperatures so you can make sure that you're growing the right plant for the right season.

Tip #2: Avoid Extreme Weather

While you're checking your weather forecast for your high and low temps, look to see if you're expecting any extreme weather (not just frost, but also storms, wind, etc.) coming up. Sunny skies and mild temps are worth the wait. Have some garden covers (frost cloth for cold and shade cloth for heat) ready to go to protect your little seedlings as needed.

Tip #3: Prepare the Planting Area

Have your bed set up and ready to go so that you can sow seeds when you have good weather. First, clear the space of old plants to make plenty of room to add new ones. When direct seeding, it's important that your planting area isn't receiving too much shade from other plants that have been in the garden or that are being planted simultaneously.

Second, weed the planting area. Weeds (AKA plants you don't want) can compete with the plants you do want for water and other resources.

Then, amend the soil. I like to add a 2- to 3-inch layer of fresh compost to the top of the soil before I add anything new to the garden. Use a small rake and your hand to level the planting area. You don't want your seeds to start sliding down little slopes when it rains.

Lastly, pre-moisten the planting area with some water. Now you're ready to direct sow vegetables.

direct sow vegetables

Tip #4: Follow Directions for Planting Depth

Read the directions on the seed package for the recommended planting depth. Generally speaking, the larger the seed, the deeper you'll plant it. Tiny seeds like lettuce seeds don't need to be covered much at all; they only need good soil contact, which can be achieved by gently pressing them into the soil and then sprinkling a dusting of compost over them.

Tip #5: Be Super Careful When Dispersing Seeds

One of the biggest challenges when you direct seed is not over-planting, especially when you're working with really tiny seeds like lettuce seeds. If you end up with too many seedlings in one place, you'll have to come back and thin them or risk less-than-optimal growth. I'll recommend some tools below to help you space out your seeds when direct seeding.

Wait to cover your seeds with soil until you're done planting. That way, you can make sure you've filled all the holes you've made and don't double- or even triple-plant.

Tip #6: Tag It

Place plant tags where you've sown seeds. I always think I'll remember where I planted something, but the number of times I've sown multiple seeds in the same area suggests otherwise.

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Tip #7: Keep Soil Moist

Keep the soil where you've sown seeds consistently moist while you're waiting on those seeds to germinate. Water is what tells the seeds to wake up and burst open. Make sure though to water carefully to avoid washing your seedlings away. Mimic gentle rainfall.

Tip #8: Use Garden Covers

It's also a great idea to cover seedlings with garden mesh immediately after planting to protect them from strong wind and pests. Many bugs are drawn to seedlings—to them, the younger the better.

Tip #9: Thin Out Seedlings

If you notice two or more seedlings popping up very close to each other, you'll need to do something called thinning in order to ensure your seedlings have all the space and resources they need to grow big and strong. Pick the less-robust-looking seedling and use a pair of scissors to cut it at the base (this method avoids disturbing the roots of the nearby seedling).

Taking these simple steps will help your seedlings feel supported by you, instead of left to fend for themselves. In most cases, you won't need to do so much pampering once your plants are more established in your garden.

cover your garden after sowing seeds or transplanting vegetables

Tools to Make Direct Seeding Easier

The smaller the seed, the harder that seed is to space out in your garden. I find thinning to be a pain, so I avoid having to come back and pull some seedlings later by taking the time as I direct sow to space out seeds properly. A stitch in time saves nine, right?

(Head's up: Some of these are Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small profit if you click on the link and purchase the product.)

direct seeding tools

These tools can help with spacing and dispersing seeds:

  • Planting Ruler - I use this ruler from Burgon & Ball. I press the ruler right on the soil surface and use the little holes at different marks to space out my seeds. This is a great tool for smaller seeds like spinach or lettuce plants that you want to grow in nice rows (instead of scattering).
  • Spice Shaker - Keep empty spice shakers if they have a perforated top. Wash and dry them, open the top, and fill the container with seeds. This is a great "tool" to use if you want to grow leafy greens in a wilder manner (in other words, not in perfect rows). The little holes in the top will shake out small seeds and disperse them as you move around the planting space.
  • Seed Dispenser - This tool won't help you get correct spacing between seeds, but it does help you place only one seed in each planting hole. Mark where you want to plant each seed and then use a seed dispenser like this one to shake out one seed and let it fall into the spot. You can pick the width of the opening in your dispenser based on the diameter of the seeds you're working with. There are also versions of seed dispensers that look like syringes.
  • Dibber - Dibbers can be used to make a little indentation where the seed should go before you use your fingers or a seed dispenser to place the seed. If you have a dibber with markings on it, like this one, then the tool can also help you plant seeds at the correct depth.

Read More on Direct Sowing

Indirect Seeding/Transplanting Vegetables

Indirect seeding means you start seeds indoors early (before it would be the optimal time to sow that seed outdoors) and transplant them outside only once the weather is right. Many gardeners love starting seeds indoors because it allows them to get a jump start on the growing season. You know what that means?

That's right. Earlier harvests.

That being said, indirect seeding can be challenging. You're basically trying to recreate nature inside. I'll give you some tips to get started, but if at first you don't succeed, you know what to do, right? Try, try again.

Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of indirect seeding.

transplanting herbs

Advantages of Indirect Seeding/Transplanting Vegetables

Some plant families take a long time to mature and need to be started indoors before the threat of frost or the scorching heat has passed. These plants include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, collards, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and cabbage. Basically, unless you have a really long season that would give these plants their optimal growing conditions for the full time it takes them to go from seed to harvest, it's best to start them inside.

If you choose to start your own plants by seed indoors, you can have a lot of control over their growing conditions and ensure they receive the best quality of care—all without having to worry about storms or bugs. Oftentimes, transplants can better resist pest pressure when they are moved out to the garden space because they're older and stronger than if they were little sprouts just poking up from the soil.

If done correctly, indirect seeding allows you to grow a lot of healthy plants that are ready to move out the garden, all for the cost of a few seed packages (and the initial investment for some seed starting supplies, of course). 

Disadvantages of Indirect Seeding/Transplanting Vegetables

Seed starting indoors and then successfully transplanting seedlings outdoors is what I consider an advanced gardener's skill, one that requires certain supplies and involves going to a lot of trouble over a 6- to 8-week period to keep those baby plants happy.

Even if you buy a plant from your local nursery or garden center that's ready to go, you have to take steps to avoid what's called transplant shock when you move it out to your garden space. No matter how careful you are when transplanting vegetables you've started indoors or bought from a store, the plants are likely to slow their growth for a while until they adjust to their new home.

transplanting vegetables

Indoor Seed Starting Tips for Success

Instead of letting Mother Nature do all the work to grow these seeds, you have to pretend you are Mother Nature. That means you have to think about sunlight, air flow, temperature, and soil. You have to make your seeds believe they're outdoors in the garden, waking up at just the right time to grow.

Here are a few tips to get you started.

Tip #1: Hydrate the Seed Starting Mix

It's critical to properly prepare your seed starting mix before you sow any seeds by adding water and hydrating it thoroughly. The ideal consistency is a mixture that holds together without dripping too much when you scoop up a handful and squeeze it between your fingers. 

Tip #2: Fill Cells to the Top

Take your hydrated seed starting mix and fill each cell of your plug tray to the very top. Gently press down the mix in each cell to level it and to avoid any huge air pockets or slopes that could cause your seedling to be disturbed.

Tip #3: Water from the Bottom

What you don't want to do anytime you're starting seeds indoors is water from the top, as doing so can disturb your little seedlings and keep the seed starting mix too moist. Water from the bottom by pouring water in the non-draining tray and allowing the mix to absorb water slowly.

how to water seed starting trays

Tip #4: Place Just 1 to 2 Seeds per Cell

Thinning seed trays is as much of a pain as thinning outdoors, so try to place just one or two seeds per cell. This is especially true for newer and good-quality seeds that should have high germination rates. Use a dibber or a chopstick to put a little indention in the center of each cell to place your seed inside.

Remember, don't cover up your seeds with seed starting mix until you've planted every cell.

Tip #5: Read the Directions on the Seed Packet to Determine When to Start Seeds Indoors

Timing is another component of seed starting indoors that makes this more of an advanced gardening skill. Seedlings started indoors will grow slower than ones planted out in the garden, so you need to give them enough time indoors to become mature enough to be moved without being harmed.

The back of my seed packet for cabbage, for instance, says, "Start indoors six to eight weeks before your last frost date, transplanting two to four weeks before your average frost date." So basically, they're asking you to grow cabbage under lights for about four weeks.

For more indoor seed starting tips, check out our Seed Starting course inside of Gardenary 365. We've got video lessons to walk you step by step through selecting the right supplies for your needs, planting out your seeds in the trays, and helping them grow. We'll also help you troubleshoot common seed starting issues.

indoor seed starting

Tools to Start Seeds Indoors

Unlike direct seeding, this method requires a bit of a setup so that you can imitate nature indoors. You'll need the following tools:

  • Organic Seed Starting Mix - I look for mixes that are certified organic and avoid synthetic fertilizers and anything that might burn, or overstimulate, my seedlings. I've rounded up some of my favorite seed starting mix options. Again, you'll need to hydrate your mix with fresh water before filling your seed starting trays.
  • A Non-Draining Tray and a Plug Tray - There are lots of different supplies you can use to start your seeds, but I've had the most consistent results with just a non-draining tray and a tray with lots of little cells. A lot of seed starting kits come with plastic domes, as well. You'll want to remove this dome as soon as the seeds germinate. We've reviewed the different tray options available here.
  • Grow Lights - Artificial light is necessary to grow really robust little seedlings, especially during the winter months when we don't have as many hours of natural light. We've got recommendations for grow lights for seed starting indoors here.

To Direct Sow or Not to Direct Sow

Some Vegetables Don't Handle Transplanting Well

As someone who has moved an awful lot, I can attest to the fact that each move is stressful. Taking a plant that's been grown in a cushy, temperature-controlled environment indoors and moving it outside to face bugs, wind, and whatever else Mother Nature might throw at it is like moving internationally with a couple hours to pack. And some plants will never recover from this kind of stress.

If the plant has delicate, shallow, or easily disturbed roots, it will really dislike being moved. Plants that we grow primarily for their root are easily stressed and stunted, which means that transplanting carrots is not a great idea. This is why you might see kale or tomato seedlings for sale at the nursery or even grocery store but rarely beets or radishes.

Other plants that do best when sown directly in the garden are small leafy greens, beans, some peas, and nasturtiums.

When in doubt, check the back of the seed package, which should tell you if the plant isn't recommended for indoor seed starting and transplanting. Learn more about which seeds should not be started indoors.

direct seeding vs transplanting

How to Transplant Plants Without Killing Them

Transplanting seedlings can be a tricky business if you're a new gardener. If you were to just take a plant that's been growing in a cushy environment and stick it straight outside in the bright sun and strong winds, that plant could very well have transplant shock and die.

Plants that you've started indoors yourself or plants that you've purchased from the nursery benefit from a process called hardening off before they're moved permanently to the garden. Hardening off means transitioning seedlings or plant starts outdoors to the space where they'll spend the rest of their plant lifecycle.

Follow these steps to successfully harden off your plants before transplanting them to the garden space.

transplanting tomato seedlings

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Don't Let Sowing Seeds Stress You Out

My hope is that you feel inspired now to take some seeds and put them in the soil to witness the magic of them sprouting. If at any point the idea of planting seeds sounds too stressful or overwhelming, remember that you can always buy healthy plant starts from a local nursery to fill your garden.

You can also just try your hand at sowing some really easy flower seeds first. Digging the right-sized holes or transplanting zinnia seeds, for instance, is unnecessary because you can literally just toss these seeds in the air and let them grow where they land. I can't recommend this enough if you need a reminder of the joy that can come from growing plants from seed.

Thanks for being here and helping me make gardening feel more ordinary again! I can't wait to see what you grow from seed in your own garden.

scattering vs transplanting zinnias
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Direct vs Indirect Seeding: What Does It Mean?