Direct seeding outside has many advantages for most kinds of vegetables, though it’s not the best solution for all of them. While planting transplants gives you a head start on the season for veggies that need heat, and can help you get the most out of succession planting, some types of vegetables hate being transplanted and much prefer direct seeding, while direct seeding is also cheaper (if you buy your transplants instead of growing your own) and less work (if you grow your own transplants).
Which Vegetables Prefer to be Direct Seeded?
Root vegetables are the most obvious group here. Carrots and parsnips just don’t grow proper roots if you try to transplant them, so direct seeding is the way to go. I know of people who transplant beets, starting them in peat or newspaper pots which can be planted directly into the soil, but it’s easier to direct seed.
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Beans and peas really prefer to be direct seeded although you can transplants – they tend to grow a long taproot right away so toilet paper tubes can work.
The cucurbits (squash, cukes and melons) generally don’t like their roots disturbed so if you have a long enough season naturally, direct seeding works better – but for most of us, these plants need a longer season than we can give them with direct seeding, so transplants and careful planting are the way to go for cukes and melons. Squash can be direct seeded outside sooner, so they are a good candidate for direct seeding most of the crop, with a few transplants to get an early flow of fruits.
Salad greens grow well from direct seeding, and really have to be if you’re planting a patch of mesclun mix or mixed baby lettuce. Individual salad green plants can be done either way, direct seeding or transplants.
Vegetables which grow from tubers or bulbs like potatoes, garlic, and onions from sets, all get direct planted too.
Onions will grow from seeds but they tend to take quite a long time, so apart from spring onions, many people either use transplants or sets.
If you have a long enough season, you can even grow tomatoes, peppers and other warmth lovers from direct seeding – but most of us use transplants so that we get a worthwhile length of harvest.
Direct Seeding Preparation
Your bed preparation for direct seeding depends on the size of seed you’ll be planting. The finer the seed, the finer the soil surface on the bed needs to be. Carrots and parsnips also need the soil broken up to a fair depth in order to make good roots. The soil in the bed should be thoroughly damped to full depth and on the surface.
What seeds need to sprout well and grow is the right temperature, and the right amount of water and air. So, your soil needs to be warm enough for what you’re planting, damp, and not compacted. Ideally, it should be firm below the seeds (so that water can rise by capillary action) and loose enough above them to make it easy for the shoots to push through. You also want plenty of organic matter in the top layer to hold water and prevent the soil crusting over.
Planting the Seeds
My own method for small seeds is to soak the bed the day before, loosen the top layer with my “garden weasel” tool (see pictures at left), then press a groove into the soil with a 1×1 stick – either across the bed for short rows, or along the bed for long rows. This compresses the soil slightly. I plant my seeds in the groove by hand (I don’t find any of the hand-seeding tools to be any better than my fingers). I then either pull a little loose soil over them from beside the groove, sprinkle damp compost along the groove to cover them, or water gently without bothering to add a covering – tiny seeds will slip down into the soil crevices when you water. I then tap gently along the row with the head of a rake to firm the soil.
If you want a “patch” rather than rows (say, for salad mix or baby lettuce), then just loosen the top layer of soil over the whole area, scatter seed over it, jiggle the soil about – with a weasel, rake, hand fork or your fingers – to get the seeds down into the soil, and water. One warning on this method: if you have weeds seeds in your soil (and who doesn’t?) they will come up along with and mixed into your salad. Picking them out after wards is a pain however you do it. You could de-weed your soil by solarizing that patch before planting and disturbing the surface as little as possible, or you could spread weed-free potting mix or compost over the broadcast seeds instead of jiggling them into the existing soil. Either method will reduce the weed load but not completely eliminate it.
Larger seeds like peas, beans and squash get a bit less careful handling. Peas go either in a pressed groove as above, or a wide band scraped out with a hoe, but I then press them deeper into the soil with a finger and cover them about 3/4″ deep in soil, and firm. For beans, in the past I’ve made individual holes with a finger or stick and the dropped the beans down into the holes and pulled the soil over, then watered. This year I have a LOT of beans to plant, so I plant to make a planting stick out of a piece of plastic pipe – to do this, just cut the bottom of a 3/4″ or 1″ pipe at an angle, thenstick that end into the soil to planting depth and drop the bean down the tube. The big advantage of this method is that you can do it standing up instead of kneeling or crouching, which as I get older and creakier I think is a very good thing!
Squash usually get planted quite far apart as the plants are so big, but you often want to plant several seeds at the same location to be sure to get a good plant at each place. For these I use the finger or stick hole method, making three holes an inch or two apart in the approximate place where I want the plant, and dropping one squash seed into each. A little compost in the hole on top of the seed, water, and there you go.