The Garden Digs

Transplant vs Direct Sow: How to Know which Planting Method to Use

Transplant vs Direct Sow: How to Know which Planting Method to Use

There are so many opinions about how you should plant your garden that it can seem overwhelming. Gardeners have strong opinions about how to fertilize, keep pests away, and even the best crops to grow. It’s no surprise that you can often find biased opinions about how to start your garden also. Some people swear by direct sowing seeds, while other people prefer the satisfaction of transplanting seedlings into their garden.

Does it matter which method you choose for your garden? It absolutely does, and choosing the right method for your selected seeds can have a serious impact on your plants.

Direct Sow vs. Transplanting

The difference between direct sowing and transplanting is pretty straightforward. It all depends on where the seeds are originally planted.


Transplanting involves starting seeds in one location and later relocating them into your garden. You can either start your own seeds indoors and transplant them or you can purchase started plants from your local nursery and transplant them into your garden.

Starting seeds indoors requires additional time, care, and supplies, like a grow light, heat mat, or even a light stand. Transplanted crops are usually started indoors around January or February, and don’t move outside until the weather is suitable for growing.

Transplanting crops that are already growing can be very satisfying. With a little soil prep, you can quickly and easily plant a large garden that you can already see. You don’t have to wait on the plants to germinate and emerge through the soil.

Purchasing started plants is significantly more expensive than purchasing and planting seeds. There is a payoff to this though; the plants that are already started will begin to produce vegetables and fruit for you much quicker than seeds that you direct sow.

Direct Sowing

When you direct sow seeds, you plant the seeds directly into your garden’s soil. There’s no need to start seeds indoors and relocate them later. Where you plant the is where they will grow and stay.

Direct sowing is a much simpler process than transplanting – you don’t have to start seeds early or worry about fussy supplies like a heat mat and grow light. You can sow seeds right into the ground, water, and watch grow.

Direct sowing is also very dependent upon the weather. When you plant your seeds, you want them to be planted into soil that is both warm enough and moist without being soggy. This can be tricky in the spring. If your winter is long or your spring is extremely wet, you may have to delay when you plant your garden.

Which Method to Use

Each crop prefers a different method, so your direct sow and transplanting strategy will be unique for every crop you plant.

Seeds that are tough or have a think seed coat are best suited for direct sowing. Most tough seeds are larger seeds, like corn, beans, and peas and can handle being sown straight into the soil. Seeds like watermelon, cantaloupe, squash and pumpkins are also good candidates for direct sowing. These seeds are protected with a tough seed coat and perform well when planted straight into the soil.

Larger seeds are also much easier to handle. This makes it easier to space them out properly when you direct sow them. Smaller seeds are harder to handle and separate. If you direct sow small seeds, you’re more likely to plant them too close together, meaning you’ll have to thin your plants later on.

Smaller seeds are often more sensitive to cooler temperatures and growing conditions, which makes them better candidates for starting indoors and transplanting. These seeds are typically started indoors using soft soil mixtures. Once the seedlings develop true leaves, they can be moved outdoors and transplanted into the garden.

Plan on transplanting crops like tomatoes or peppers. These tender seeds will do much better if they are already started before you put them into the garden.

Have you already bought seeds for leafy greens or other plants that have tiny seeds? These crops perform best in cooler weather, a time when we don’t tend to think about direct sowing seeds outdoors. Some of these tiny seeds can be broadcast in a garden bed.

Plants like spinach, kale, or greens can be broadcast and then gently raked into the soil when weather is cool but not yet cold. You can also start seeds for lettuce, Brussels sprouts, cabbage or other cool weather crops indoors. Seeds for lettuce and green leafy or cruciferous vegetables are quite small and can be very difficult to handle. It’s also helpful to purchase pelleted seeds, which encapsulate the seed in a coating to make them easier to handle.

Tips for Direct Sowing Success

The weather and garden environment need to be ideal before you start sowing seeds into the ground. Don’t try to plant seeds straight into last year’s garden bed without any prep work. Not only will your germination rate be lower, but you will tire yourself out before planting all of your seeds!

The garden soil should be free of frost and the threat of frost should be behind you before sowing seeds. Most garden plants will germinate when the soil temperature is in the 60s or higher. Some cool season crops will germinate even if temperatures dip into the 40s.

Start by cleaning up your garden bed. Remove any debris, leftover crops, or weeds that managed to survive the winter.

You’ll also want to take the time to prep your soil. It’s much easier to plant seeds into soft soil. If your soil is hard, break it up with a tiller or a small shovel. Seeds need to be able to break through the soil when they germinate, so soft soil is essential.

Once the soil is cleaned up and loosened, perform any soil testing that you need to do. Check the pH (most garden soil should be slightly acidic, around 6.5 for most vegetable plants) and should have plenty of nutrients in it. If you need to amend your soil, do that before putting your seeds into the ground. Make sure that any amendments you put down are gentle enough for your seeds and seedlings.

Use a garden hoe or a piece of string to mark off a straight line for your rows.

Some large seeds that have a tough seed coat will germinate better if you scratch the coating of the seed. Use your fingernail to scratch the coating of squash seeds, watermelons, and cantaloupes.

You can also increase the germination rate by soaking seeds in water the night before you plant them.

Now, check the back of your seed packet for planting information. The seed packet should tell you how deep to plant your seeds, how far to space them out, and how long you can expect it to take them to germinate. Sow your seeds according to the directions on the packet.

I like to keep a garden journal while I’m working in the garden. It’s a good place to keep up with things like germination rate. Write down how many seeds you planted and how many actually emerge. Divide the number of seedlings that emerged by the number of seeds you planted to calculate your germination rate. You can compare this number to the germination rate found on your seed packet. If your germination rate is low, you may want to make changes to how you direct sow that crop next year or consider changing cultivars.

Tips for Transplanting Success

There are two ways that you can get plants to transplant into your garden. You can either purchase started plants or you can start your own seeds indoors and transplant the seedlings into your garden.

Plants that you purchase from a garden center or a nursery can be expensive. Plan on spending anywhere from $1-6 per plant if you’re purchasing started plants. Alternatively, you can start your own seeds indoors to reduce the costs.

There are benefits to starting your own seeds indoors.

  • You’ll have a greater selection of varieties to choose from.
  • The costs are much lower than purchasing started plants from someone else.
  • You can ensure that the strongest and most vigorous plants are the ones that make it into your garden.

Do a little bit of prep work before you start transplanting crops into your garden. Just like with direct-sowing, make sure that the threat of frost has passed. Summer crops will do best when temperatures remain above 60 degrees. Cool season crops like greens, lettuce or cruciferous vegetables can handle temperatures that dip into the 40s.

Remove any debris or weeds from the soil. Weeds that are left behind are competition for the vegetable plants. They will compete with your plants for space, nutrients, and sunlight. The process of transplanting can be shocking to plants. You want to eliminate as much stress from the environment as possible, including weeds.

Thoroughly water your plants before removing them from their original container. Dig a hole that is larger than the size of the container that the plant was in. Gently break up the soil around the roots to loosen the roots up before placing it into the hole.

Cover the roots loosely with soil and water deeply. Add soil as needed to fill in the soil. Repeat if necessary.

I have found that some of the containers designed to break down don’t break down quickly enough. Sometimes the plant’s roots will become caught in the pot and run out of nutrients. You can easily prevent this. Take a pair of scissors and quickly cut down the sides of the pot. I like to make three or four cuts per pot. Use caution to prevent cutting and damaging the roots of the seedling while you do this. The slits will allow the roots to break through the pot before it actually breaks down if needed.

Final Thoughts

The best way to plant your garden is to use the planting method most recommended for your crops. Use direct sowing for large seeds that have a hard, tough coating. Beans, sunflowers, peas, squash and melon seeds are all ideal for direct sowing.

Transplant crops that have smaller seeds, like tomatoes, petunias, and peppers.

You can use either method to plant your garden out as long as the threat of frost has passed and the soil is warm enough. Do a little prep work to your garden bed before you plant or sow seeds. Eliminate any weeds or debris that will slow down your plants’ growth.

Shelby DeVore is an avid gardner that has 20+ years of experience gardening in all kinds of conditions, from apartment balconies and kitchen counters to traditional garden beds. You can find more of her tips and advice on her homesteading website: Farminence.

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