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Direct seeding or transplanting vegetable starts - which do you do?

 
gardener
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Direct Seeding or Transplanting Vegetable Starts

I have always been torn between direct seeding my garden or transplanting starts. The part of me that is focused on working with nature through permaculture really wants to plant all my vegetables from seeds. But I hate thinning... really hate it. So transplants can be very appealing to me.

Plus, some vegetables just don't do well here in Western Washington with our wet, cloudy, springs so growing them as starts (or buying starts) can be a great way to grow these vegetables.

But, direct seeded vegetables are cheaper (free if they are from saved seeds) and seem to weather summer droughts much better.

So which is better? Direct seeding your vegetables, or transplanting vegetable starts?

To help answer these questions, this week's blog post is focused on the pros and cons of direct seeding your vegetables and transplanting vegetable starts - Planting Vegetables – Are Seeds or Starts the Best for Your Garden?.

The blog post is broken into 2 main sections with sub-sections that dive into the details:

- Pros and Cons of Direct Seeding
- Pros and Cons of Transplanting Vegetable Starts

While I tried to come up with a complete list of pros and cons for both methods, I'm sure you will be able to come up with pros and cons that I missed for both. Please post a reply and share any additional pros and cons you can think of for either method.

A Story About the Benefits of Direct Seeding


Orach grown at my place from seeds - I find greens like orach generally easy to grow from seed.

For me the most important benefit of direct seeding in my garden is that plants that are direct seeded tend to be more drought resistant.

An observation that really brought this home to me was at one of my restoration sites for my day job. For this project I had planted thousands of trees and shrubs trying to convert an old golf course into a healthy forest. But the site was very degraded and the soil was very poor at retaining water.

Basically, the site was always in a drought in the summer and we joked that you could dump a bucket of water on the ground and it would just disappear straight into the ground.

I struggled to find the crews and funds to keep all the trees and shrubs watered so they could get established and survive the annual droughts. Through a ton of effort the project was a success - but then I noticed something...

Big parts of the restoration site had been mulched (where buildings were demolished or old roads removed) and I noticed there were a ton of volunteer trees and shrubs from seeds coming up in these areas. This was interesting but then I noticed that these little seedlings survived the summer droughts without any watering from my crews!

Plus, these were the same species that I spent tons of effort planting and then watering over 2 summers...

Nature 1 - Daron 0

Because of this observation I'm experimenting at a new restoration site with only preparing a site with mulch, not doing any of direct planting and instead just let nature do the planting through volunteers from wind blow seeds and seeds brought in by wildlife (birds mostly).

Potentially, this will save time, energy, money and result in more resilient restoration site. Working with nature is always a good idea!

So, how does this story apply to your homestead or garden?

You can get the same benefit that I observed at my restoration site in your garden simply by direct seeding your vegetables instead of using starts. These young seedlings will be more drought resilient and should reduce how much watering your garden needs.

For my homestead this is probably the single biggest reason I like to use direct seeding instead of transplanting - but I still often rely on transplants. For some vegetables direct seeding just does not seem to work.

Plants that are transplanted have their roots confined to the size of the pot they are grown in. I have pulled up very young direct seeded plants and found them to already have a main root longer than the standard small pots that vegetable starts are normally grown in.

But despite this great benefit I still rely on transplants a fair bit.

Which Method do You Prefer?



Choosing between direct seeding and transplanting starts is a choice that I have struggled with a fair bit. I feel like I "should" plant with seeds but often the benefits of transplanting vegetable starts makes me go that route instead. The story I shared above is a big part of why I want to direct seed everything.

But often it can be easier to buy some starts and plant them with the exact spacing I want. No thinning, bigger plants (pill bugs stop being an issue), but less options in terms of varieties, and much more expensive (I don't have a good place to grow my own starts).

So I end up doing a mix - greens, carrots (and other root crops), peas, and beans are often direct seeded but then I buy starts for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Basically, starts for warm loving plants (except corn and squash) and direct seeding for the rest.

This seems to work for me. But what about you?

Do you only use transplants (bought or ones you have grown)? Do you only direct seed? Or do you prefer a mix?

Please leave a comment in this thread with your answer and don't forget to check out my blog post mentioned in this thread. If you are one of the first to leave a comment on here you might even get a surprise in the form of pie or apples

The blog post has a complete list of pros and cons for direct seeding and transplanting starts. Plus, all the information is available in a cheat-sheet that you can easily print to help you plan how to plant each vegetable for your garden.

If you are needing some help figuring out which vegetables to grow then check out last week's blog post all about How to Choose the Right Vegetables to Plant in Your Garden

Thank you!

PS: Sorry for the delay in getting this out to you all - spent the weekend working on installing a new fence with my Dad and just ran out of time to jump on the computer until now.
 
pollinator
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I am a big fan of direct seeding. I do starts mostly for things that aren't quite adapted here yet and need some season extension, but I try to cross those with another variety that is adapted. I also stop growing things if there is a direct seeded alternative.
 
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For us there is no one method that is used, we do transplants for items we want to shorten the time to first fruits and we direct seed the shorter term to harvest species and varieties.
If you have issues with cramped root systems for transplants all you have to do is use taller starting containers, we use toilet paper center tubes and paper towel tubes, these let plants with tap roots sink that root as deep as it wants while it is being started for transplanting.
If you want to be able to reuse your starter tubes, just find some large enough plastic tubing (pvc pipe works great) cut it to the proper lengths and grow your starts that way, I use a stick with a sized to fit disk to push the soil and plant out from the bottom up for planting.
We use row covers to keep early started transplants from the dangers of a late frost.

To keep from having to do a lot of thinning of our direct seeding we space them as we plant them, if two or three come up in any one spot, we just let them go as they wish.
Some items we plant heavy, then the weak will perish and the strong will prevail, carrots are one of the vegetables we plant this way, most of the time we will space the seeds by using a seed dropper to control how many seeds go in any one place.
Beets we do a solid strip of seeds, we like to eat beet greens and baby beets so the first harvesting is also a thinning, we plant these heavily enough that we can get three to four baby beet harvests in before letting the left behinds grow to full size.

All things considered, it is always better to start from seed, whether you are growing your own transplants or direct seeding, this allows you to take full advantage of saving your own seeds so your plants are acclimated to your area (land race plants are the best always).

Redhawk

 
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Great list of the pros and cons of both!

I like to direct seed if possible. It is easier to do with limited time for me personally. I can go out and thin/harvest pretty quickly and sporadically when I have some free time, where transplanting takes me a lot longer usually. Plus like you mentioned I can thin/harvest the weaker plants, saving seed from the stronger ones!

I've had some difficulty with direct seeding peppers though, like you mentioned in the blog. So this year, I think I'm going to start them from seed in my shed and transplant them once they get started!

 
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Hi Daron,

I also end up relying on plants that I start under lights to get a head start particularly with rogue late spring frosts.  Especially on things like tomatoes and peppers, the early start time is important.

I know that Paul Wheaton has been a big proponent of direct seeing and volunteer plants for a long time.  Perhaps when I get all my garden areas expanded and I am not working with such a limited area, I will not need to try and eke every bit of productivity out of the relatively small (currently less than 1000sf) of mostly raised bed areas.  I will then be able to plant more like a real farmer.

We have such a problem with deer, ground hogs, raccoons, etc. that it takes time to create more protected space for growing food that we get to eat as opposed to just feeding the wildlife.  I refuse to shoot them as I moved into their forest, so they also get to live and eat here, just not from my garden.

Sincerely,

Ralph
 
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I keep reading about direct seeding, and maybe once I get my beds more settled so that the slugs and pill bugs are under better natural control, it will work better for me, but at this time I find that with limited sunshine available and our cool, wet springs, even if I get good germination of direct seed veggies, they get mowed down before getting large enough to fight off the munchers. My friends who gets more sun that I do, have much better success with direct seeding.

I do agree with Bryant Redhawk - planting in deep, narrow pots helps to overcome the disadvantage of having to do starts. I make paper pots with a wooden form I was given, and I've gradually used taller and taller paper with it. I read somewhere that 3 inches of dirt was important for root formation. My goal this year is to have all my paper pots about 3 1/2 inches tall, so that I'll know that the dirt meets that minimum. There are pros and cons to paper pots, but on the pro side, I don't actually "transplant" - I simply plant the whole pot. So long as the soil is moist, the roots grow right through the paper and the roots usually don't get disturbed during the planting process.

I've also got *very* heavy deer pressure. This limits my planting to protected areas. My attempts at redirecting the deer using plants they don't like has not succeeded reliably enough to count on it. This further restricts my available space, so if I'm trying to make every sq. foot count, starting most of my seeds in pots gives me better odds of success.

That said, I'm in the process of building a raised bed. I'm planning to fill the bottom of it with punky wood and chicken shit contaminated mulch I dug out of a deep mulched chicken shelter. I will put good soil and finished compost on top of that. I'm thinking I will try starting 1/2 the bed with direct seeded tomatoes and see if the deep manure will generate enough heat to keep them warm with some sort of a tunnel over the top. It may just call every slug in the neighborhood, so I'll also start some tomatoes in the house. I will post the results one way or another - mistakes are how we find out what doesn't work!
 
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That's a really nice article, laying things out clearly for a beginning gardener.

Here are a few observations from me.

You seem to say the only choice is either direct seeding out in the garden, or starting transplants indoors. This idea that transplants must be started indoors with lots of equipment is a uniquely American idea, in my experience. For example, here in Ladakh, many people start seeds for transplanting in a small area of garden outdoors, and then transplant them later. I've seen people from England make comments on Permies, that starting seedlings doesn't require elaborate light set ups.

A benefit of transplanting that you didn't mention is that, for a gardener with limited space, it allows more intensive use of space. You can use pots or a small space to start seeds for transplanting into the garden after something else is harvested, whereas if you plant seeds after that harvest, there might not be enough time for the second crop.

Another benefit of transplanting is that you can give full attention to the seedlings, recognise them clearly, and keep them clear of weeds. When I plant something outdoors in its final spacing, it might get overwhelmed with weeds because it starts slower than they do. And it might be hard to find where each little tomato seed (or pair of seeds) is planted, a couple of feet away from the next one.

A benefit of growing transplants, especially for the beginner gardener, is that if it is planted out in the garden and other weeds and volunteers grow alongside it, a beginner might not be able to recognise the crop from the weeds. If a related plant went to seed in the area previously, it might be difficult even for an experienced gardener (eg in the huge cabbage-mustard family, all the seedlings look pretty similar).

At our school we heat some of our buildings with solar greenhouses so we start our transplants of long season crops in the greenhouse. I asked someone without a greenhouse why they start their seeds in a little area of the garden outside. She gave a few reasons: They start this small area with a piece of plastic over the soil to warm it up a little. They can tend this small area in early spring, while still getting around to the larger work of transporting manure to the larger garden and tilling it. The larger garden starts sprouting a fuzz of weeds (mostly lambsquarters) and then it's easy to slice those off before transplanting in the starts.

All that said, I actually enjoy direct seeding for my very small personal garden, because I don't till, I just mulch, so I often pull away the mulch and seed the next crop right under the sides of a crop that I'll be harvesting soon. I start transplants in the greenhouse for long season things, and for things I've never grown before so I'll recognise the seedlings. At our school, where all different people, mostly teenagers, tend the garden, I see the benefits of transplanting, where you can clear the weeds and then transplant in starts that are big enough to have a headstart and to recognise.

Crops that don't appreciate being transplanted are not primarily root crops. Ones that famously don't like being transplanted that come to my mind are carrots, corn, peas, and most cucurbits. I've transplanted turnips with no problem, and I've heard that beets are fine if done carefully.
 
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I would love to direct-seed stuff because it sounds like it would be less work. In reality I transplant everything, as otherwise the cold/slugs/cats will eat the seedlings. We don't have a very long season here and I only have a small space, so transplanting lets me sprout the seeds in fairly controlled (greenhouse) conditions and ensure they're big enough to handle the great outside before they have to live there- I haven't got the space to really experiment.

Things that don't like transplanting much (corn!) I sow in cardboard tubes and still transplant, then the roots don't get too disturbed.  
 
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This will be our first growing season at our new place, so will largely be simple experimentation - but, hopeful. I've not had an in-ground garden of more than half a dozen plants, in about 15yrs, and that was in south-central KY. The decade I've just spent in IL has not been fruitful, at all. MO will be a new-to-me growing experience, though some of the conditions seem similar to those I had in KY. I've never had good luck with starting my own, indoors. Indoor planting space has previously been non-existent, and this year it will be again, just because we won't be completely moved & prepared, in time - yet, we want them, and we want to harvest, this year, as much as possible. We also want to get started this year, on some items that take a couple years to get established. So, tomato, pepper, and several perennial herb starts will be purchased, as will blueberry bushes, black raspberry, asparagus, elderberry, rhubarb, and likely some others.

We expect to start carrots, garlic, lettuces, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and a few other short-season items, primarily from direct-sown seed. How we proceed for 2020 will depend (at least in part) on what we learn, this year.
 
Daron Williams
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Thanks all for the comments! Sorry for the delay in getting back to you all – I’m still exhausted from installing my new fence and a bunch of mulching work! Been a bit of a struggle balancing my on the ground homesteading work with my online work.

William – Overall I’m in a similar place as you. I’m really hoping to save seeds and develop verities that are adapted to my garden and hopefully shift more and more to direct seeding.

Dr. Redhawk – Good suggestion to use toil paper center tubes and paper towel tubes. I have seen some people doing that but have not tried it yet. Do you know how long it takes for those to breakdown? The PVC tubes idea reminds me of what I have seen in nurseries where I get my native plants from. They use long yellow tubes that could be mimicked using PVC tubes.

I think I get a bit rushed sometimes with seeds – so I end up over planting with small seeds. I just need to stop rushing and take my time…

Steve – Thank you! Have you tried building cold frames over any of your beds (or even a part of the bed) to help get things like peppers going? I have been thinking about giving this a try.

Ralph – I hear ya on the issues with wildlife. I just finished fencing my property which is why I’m just now creating my first dedicated garden bed at my homestead. I have been just mixing in my vegetables amongst my perennial trees and shrubs since those areas were already protected. It worked but limited how much I could grow and sometimes harvests were a pain.

Jay – Please do share your results with your tomatoes! I’m very interested in seeing how that goes. I’m building a new raised bed(s) too. I’m hoping that the slugs will be minimized since they will need to cross a lot of mulched ground to get to the raised beds. I have similar issues with slugs and pill bugs – they ate most of my kale last year… But I did discover that they seem to leave orach alone so I may rely on that more for my greens. Chard seems to do well too.

Rebecca – Thank you! Good point about starting seeds outdoors and then transplanting them later. Also, good points on the benefits of transplanting – thank you for sharing! I’m learned to garden in an area that got much colder than where I live now. All transplanting was done as ways to get a jump start on the growing season since the ground was frozen well into spring. I forget that in warmer areas, growing transplants outdoors can work great. Thank you for the reminder!

Charli – Thanks for your comment! Slugs and pill bugs are a big issue here too. In the new garden I’m building I’m planning on creating some habitat areas along with it for critters like garter snakes since they eat slugs. Hopefully it will help keep pests under control.

Carla – Good luck with your first growing season! Hopefully, your new place will prove good for your garden. Hope you will share pictures of your garden as it gets going!
 
Steve Thorn
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I haven't built any cold frames yet, but I hope to give it a try some day!
 
Daron Williams
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I saved a few old windows from a demolition project at one of my restoration sites. I'm thinking about using them to create some small cold frames this year for my new garden. Been thinking about trying to direct seed some warm loving vegetables under them.
 
pollinator
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I just needed a 'push' for direct seeding.

My problem is: I want to sew too early. Even now in January ... I feel so very impatient. I want Spring to come.
That's my only reason for sewing seeds indoors (in the window sil of my South-East facing window).
When Spring finally has sprung, and I plant out my transplants, they are leggy and weak. So I direct-sew outdoors too ... I know, this is not smart.
 
Jay Angler
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Inge Leonora-den Ouden wrote:

I feel so very impatient. I want Spring to come.

I can totally relate. If you've saved your seeds and have plenty, and seeing them germinate gives you pleasure, you can always just give them to the compost gods and direct seed when the time comes and you haven't really lost anything. Alternatively, you can feed that need by growing some sprouts on your window ledge and adding them to dishes as a garnish or more. I often do that with sunflower seeds at this time of year. Also, when I've remembered to plan ahead and save some walking onion tops, I will put them in my south window. Outside at this time of year, they tend to get picked on by the slugs (my garden snakes are hibernating - darn them!). It's not as if they will produce a huge crop in the window, but they produce enough to add to a sandwich or some potato salad. Both of these approaches help me hold off on starting seeds that I know really won't do all that well - but I soooo... recognize the temptation of which you speak!
 
Daron Williams
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I hear ya about getting impatient. One thing that has been interesting for me is to see a bunch of volunteers from last years plants already sprouting at my place. Orach is sprouting very early and miners lettuce is already up and growing.

So perhaps one option would be to broad cast some seed in the fall and see if it comes up early in late winter or early spring? Be an interesting experiment.
 
Inge Leonora-den Ouden
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Jay Angler wrote:... Alternatively, you can feed that need by growing some sprouts on your window ledge and adding them to dishes as a garnish or more. I often do that with sunflower seeds at this time of year. ...


I always grow a little amount of sprouts, but now I try more different sprouts, and 'baby leaves' in my window sil. I have plenty of seeds I can use.
 
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Jay Angler wrote:I've also got *very* heavy deer pressure. This limits my planting to protected areas. My attempts at redirecting the deer using plants they don't like has not succeeded reliably enough to count on it. This further restricts my available space, so if I'm trying to make every sq. foot count, starting most of my seeds in pots gives me better odds of success.


Off the topic, but have you considered planting things they DO like, but away from your food garden? Give them a path to follow with treats all along it, and you might have them skipping your area entirely.
 
Jay Angler
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Lauren Ritz wrote:

Off the topic, but have you considered planting things they DO like, but away from your food garden? Give them a path to follow with treats all along it, and you might have them skipping your area entirely.


That's a good suggestion and there are situations I could see it working in, but here I suspect that approach would just encourage them to call all their friends! I certainly notice that the pressure on my garden goes up when we're half way through our annual drought, or  a huge (for us) dump of snow with below-normal temperatures. Yesterday a deer came up to one of my half-barrels that the snow had knocked the fencing off and hoovered all the self-seeded Miner's lettuce despite it being surrounded by walking onion. Clearly the onion had been knocked back sufficiently that its smell wasn't a deterrent to a *really* hungry deer. I'd like to consider putting in some sort of "living" fence in some areas and that might help, but it has to be far enough from the garden not to shade it, yet small enough to be easily managed. I've got enough 100ft + trees - I don't want more! I regularly check the charts in "Edible Forest Gardens Two" for the average height of trees I'm thinking of planting.

If anyone does try that approach, many places have laws in force *against* feeding wild animals, so it would need to be done with discretion and probably mostly with plants that would be considered "native".
 
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