Seeds and Seedlings

Direct sow refers to the process of planting seeds directly into the ground, without allowing them to sprout first.

Seedlings are the baby versions of your plants - this is the process of planting you seeds indoors and allowing a small, but hearty version of the plant to grow before moving it outdoors.

It's likely you'll find that as you get farther into gardening, both direct sow and seed-starting both have their benefits, depending on the crop you're growing. Many gardeners wind up doing a combination of the two, choosing to direct sow a portion of their vegetables while starting other seeds indoors (and buying already grown seedlings from gardening supply stores). There are loads of options out there, and you can mix and match to your hearts delight.

Procuring Seeds

Purchasing seeds

Nearly every hardware store sells seed packets from anywhere between 99¢ and $5. It's a good idea to purchase multiple varieties so you can get idea both of what you enjoy culinary (and visually!) and of what works well in your garden.

It's a good idea to conduct a little research about what tends to work well in your area, especially if you're just getting started. Some species are very lax about their soil, sun, and drainage requirements - others require very finely tuned environments to really do well. If you have a local farmer's market, this can be a great place to go and chat with some other local growers about what they have had great success with.

After a few growing seasons, look into online seed ordering - there are dozens of different seed warehouses that provide gorgeous heirloom varieties of many different vegetables, all of which are worth giving a shot in your garden. These tend to be more expensive than the small envelopes you pick up at the hardware store, so it's good to get your own gardening skills really locked down before investing in more exotic fruits and vegetables.

Collecting your own seeds

Any fruit or vegetable with visible seeds can have its seeds harvested. Exciting, right? The reason this is especially great for gardeners is because every fruit or veggie that you bite into is a pretty decent representation of what those seeds inside it can produce. If you get an especially perfect tomato - gorgeous color, perfect texture, and just the perfect level of juiciness - those seeds can be saved so you can try and grow some of those beauties yourself next season!

A more complete handbook, such as the Seed Saving Handbook or Farmer's Almanac is recommended here. While many seeds follow similar seed-saving proceedure (remove seed; rinse; dry; store) others require a little more attention (especially in the case of those delicious tomatoes I mentioned above).

To Sow or Not to Sow?

Direct Sow Benefits

One of the greatest benefits of direct sowing is that it is quick, cheap, and easy. All you need is your land and the seeds you're putting into it. Seed packets come with information printed on the back that will tell you when they should be sown (look for the zone information) as well as how deep the seed should be planted and how far seeds should be from one another. It may seem like some seeds are planted massively far away - remember that you're planting with full grown plants in mind!

There are of course drawbacks - by direct sowing, you are not “hardening off” your plants (preparing them for colder weather) as you would with seedlings, and so they can sustain frost damage. As they grow outdoors in the elements, they can be susceptible to all kinds of weather damage that indoor seedlings wouldn't face. frost, losing seedlings to wildlife

Seedling Benefits

Starting your seeds indoors means that you can give 24/7 attention to all your plants, along with a greater level of care and attentiveness. If you want to try starting more delicate plants, such as herbs from seed, doing so indoors instead of directly sowing can give them a better chance of success.

Additionally, starting your seedlings inside means that when you do move them outdoors, they have a much better chance of weathering the, well, weather. An initial “hardening” phase (gradually moving them outdoors before putting them into the ground) is necessary to avoid shocking the plants, but once they're established in your garden, all the hard work of babying them indoors will pay off in the form of strong and sturdy outdoor plants.

As with direct sowing, there are drawbacks - some kind of gear is needed, either as simple as top soil in Dixie cups or as high tech as plastic pod trays and grow lights. This method can be more time consuming and and does require more energy and attention with watering and an indoor light source if you don't have window access. As with any form of gardening, space is needed - although with starting seeds indoors, you need that space to be inside as well as outside.

Gear for Seedlings

There are many different methods for managing your indoor seedlings. As noted above, you can be as low or high tech as you want! I typically land somewhere in the middle, and have used Peat Pots the last few seasons with great results. These are expanded using water, then house your seeds and seedlings while they grow indoors. The entire pot can be planted in your garden, so there's no need for extracting roots from plastic containers or having to cut plants free from anything.

A more simplistic route can include putting topsoil in any number of containers. Dixie cups, toilet paper (or paper towel) tubes that have been cut down to 2“ pieces, takeout containers, or even just a 3” layer of topsoil in a cardboard box will do. Remember that you'll want to be able to easily extract the seedlings from this kind of container, so if you opt for growing seeds inside in one large container (such as a box or tray with no dividers), you may be in for a struggle later.

When you decide what you'll plant your seeds in, you'll want a larger container to put those smaller containers into. Large plastic ware works well here, as well as bake ware. If you're only doing a small amount of seeds (less than 4 dozen), you can purchase plastic trays that are already separated into each individual seed spot. I typically go for putting peat pots into large, shallow baking dishes.

The last bit of gear you'll need is a spray bottle for watering. With seedlings, your goal is to only keep the soil moist - not soaked. A mister is a great tool for accomplishing this, and will typically be employed on a daily basis to get the job done.

Finally, you need a sunny spot to rest your seedlings. If you have the window space, this is ideal - if not, you may need to look into grow lights for your seedlings. In the early stages, before your seeds have opened and while your seedlings are still quite small, you'll also need some kind of plastic covering. Plastic lids or plastic wrap can both be used - you're looking to create a miniature greenhouse to trap heat and moisture in your container, ensuring that your seeds have all the help they can get in growing to their full potential.


Whether you choose to direct sow or start your seeds indoors, soaking is one of the best things you can do to help them along the way. Soaking your seeds in a small amount of water (generally just enough to cover them) for 12 hours before planting helps to soften the outer shell and let the tiny embryo inside burst through.

Next step: Irrigation