Can You Plant Seeds Directly In The Ground? (Direct Sowing)


Many gardeners have heard about starting seeds indoors, instead of buying established plants from a nursery.  This is often done for tomatoes, peppers, and other plants that do not tolerate cold.

You may be wondering if it is really necessary to start seeds indoors, or if you can skip the business of transplanting seedlings.

So, can you plant seeds directly in the ground (direct sow)?  Yes, you can plant some seeds directly into the ground, including:

  • Root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes, turnips
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Peas
  • Sweet corn
  • Beans
  • Cucumbers
  • Squash

Some plants that are often started from seed include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, and onions.

Of course, the way you start seeds will depend on the plant and also the climate you live in.  A short growing season in a cold northern regions means that you will need to start seeds indoors by necessity.

Let’s take a closer look at direct sowing (direct seeding) and how to prepare your garden for planting seeds in the spring.

Can You Plant Seeds Directly In the Ground?

Yes, you can plant some seeds directly in the ground.  This is known as direct sowing or direct seeding.

seedling
You can sow some seeds directly into the ground, but others should be started outdoors.

Direct sowing is a good idea for vegetables that do not transplant well, such as carrots and other root crops.  Remember: for these crops, the entire root is the part of the plant we want to eat!

However, some seeds will do better when you start them indoors and transplant them outdoors later in the spring.  We’ll talk more about those plants later.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Direct Sowing Seeds (Pros and Cons)

Direct sowing has its benefits and drawbacks, so it’s good to be aware of what you are gaining and losing when you direct sow your seeds.  Let’s start with the advantages.

Advantages of Direct Sowing Seeds

When you plant your seeds directly in the ground, there is no need to transplant them later in the spring.  This means that there is no chance of disturbing the plant’s root system, which can kill young seedlings that are not well-established.

tomato seedling
Seedlings can be damaged when transplanted, especially their roots. Direct seeding eliminates this danger.

Direct sowing also means that you can avoid dealing with seed trays, pots, grow lights, and all of the other details that go into starting seeds indoors.

In addition, there is no need to harden off your seedlings, since there is no transition to the outdoors.  When you direct sow seeds into the soil, the seedlings are exposed to the elements right away, and so they toughen up naturally.

Disadvantages of Direct Sowing Seeds

Of course, there are some drawbacks of direct sowing seeds into your garden.  First of all, direct sowing seeds can make for a short growing season.

When you start seeds indoors, you can get established seedlings well before the last frost date. For more information, check out my article on last frost dates.

When you direct sow, you lose that opportunity, which can put your harvest at risk.  This is especially true in colder northern regions with a short growing season.

There is also the chance that garden pests, such as squirrels or chipmunks, will dig up your seeds or seedlings before they are established.

Of course, you can solve both of these problems with cloches and row covers.  A cloche is a plastic or glass cover that keeps individual seeds or seedlings (and the soil around them) warm.

You can make a cloche by cutting out the bottom of any ordinary clear plastic bottle.  You can even take off the bottle cap to act as a sort of vent on hot days.

water jugs
You can cut out the bottom of a clear plastic bottle to make a cloche for protecting individual seedlings.

A row cover is a long piece of fabric used to cover an entire row of plants, to protect them from cold and pests.

For more information, check out my articles on how to protect your plants from cold and frost:

How to Prepare Soil for Direct Sow

There are a few key steps to take to prepare your soil for direct sow.  Let’s start with soil temperature.

Wait for the Soil Temperature to Warm Up Before Direct Sowing

First, it is important to wait until the soil warms up enough.  This ensures that the seeds you plant will germinate (sprout) properly.  It also decreases the chances that the young seedlings will be killed by a late spring frost.

Check your seed packet or look online for recommendations on when to direct sow your seeds.  You will also need to find the last frost date for your area – you can do that on the Old Farmer’s Almanac website.

For example, let’s say that I want to direct sow carrots in my garden.  The Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests direct sowing carrot seeds 3 to 5 weeks before the last spring frost date.  To be safe, I’ll wait until 3 weeks (21 days) before the last spring frost date.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac frost date calculator (link above), the last spring frost for my part of Massachusetts is May 8.  Counting backwards 21 days, that means that I should direct sow my carrot seeds on April 17 (13 days in April plus 8 days in May = 21 days before last spring frost).

If you have a short growing season, you can use a hill to warm up the soil faster and improve drainage at the same time.  Planting seeds in hills is also useful for crops like cucumbers, melons, and squash, which tend to spread out and sprawl across a large space in the garden.

Clean and Amend the Soil for Direct Sowing

Before direct sowing any seeds, you will want to prepare the soil first.  If you wait until temperatures are warm enough, the soil should be easy enough to work by hand.  If not, use a trowel or rake to loosen it up.

Remove any large rocks, sticks, and dirt clumps from the soil.  If growing carrots or other root crops, you may want to remove anything that can disturb their growth.

To do this, use a soil sifter to remove rocks, sticks, and soil clumps to a depth of about one foot.  For more information, check out my article on how to remove rocks from soil.

When growing carrots and root crops, it may also be helpful to add sand to your soil, to make it smoother.  For more information, check out my article on the best soil for growing carrots.

On the other hand, if your soil is heavy clay or drains poorly, you may want to add some compost to the garden.  This will provide organic material to improve drainage, while also adding some nutrients to the soil.

compost bin
Add compost to your soil to make it drain better, and to provide some nutrients at the same time.

For more information, check out my article on how to make your own compost, and my article on what to look out for if you buy compost.

You may also need to add some fertilizer to your garden.  However, it is possible to over fertilizer, so make sure to do a soil test before adding anything to your garden!

For more information, check out my article on over fertilizing, and my article on soil testing.

Direct Sow Your Seeds into the Ground

Finally, it is time to plant your seeds!  Before you do, check the seed packet (or online) for depth and spacing requirements.

seed package
Check your seed packet for detailed planting instructions including dates, depth, and spacing.

Proper spacing helps to avoid competition between plants, and leaves room for watering, fertilizing, weeding, and harvesting later in the season.

After planting your seeds, water them to keep the soil moist.  After soil temperature, water is the most important factor in seed germination!  Dry seeds will not germinate, after all.

After your seeds begin to germinate, you should thin the seedlings if necessary.  Again, this prevents competition so that you get fewer but stronger plants.  Stronger plants can resist diseases and pests, and will produce more for your harvest.

For more information, check out this article on sowing seeds from the Penn State University Extension.

What Seeds Can You Direct Sow?

Seeds that you can sow directly into the garden include:

  • Root crops, such as carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips.  These crops do not transplant well, so it is best to start them from seed by direct sowing into the ground.
  • Cool weather crops, such as lettuce, spinach, and peas.  These crops can also be sown directly into the ground, due to their cold hardiness.
  • Beans
  • Cucumbers
  • Squash
  • Sweet corn
carrots
Carrots should be direct sown into the ground, since they are sensitive to transplant.

For more information, check out this article on starting seeds from the University of Georgia.

Which Seeds Should Be Started Indoors (and Transplanted Later)?

Some plants do better when you start them indoors to get them established and then transplant them outside later.  This is especially true for crops like tomatoes and peppers in colder northern regions with short growing seasons.  By starting seeds indoors, you extend the growing season.

Seeds that you should start indoors and transplant outdoors later include:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplants
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Broccoli
tomato seedling
Tomato seedlings should be started indoors and transplanted outdoors later in the spring.

Of course, if you do start your seeds indoors, you will need to harden them off.  This means that you expose them to the outdoors (sunlight, wind, rain, pests, etc.) slowly over time, rather than all at once.

You can do this with a greenhouse or cold frame, or by bringing trays of seedlings in and out of the house over a period of 1 to 2 weeks.

 For more information, check out my article on hardening off seedlings.

Can You Plant Tomato Seeds Directly In the Ground?

Yes, you can plant tomato seeds directly in the ground.  However, there are some reasons not to do this.

First, tomato seedlings do not tolerate frost.  If your tomato seedlings grow and are then exposed to frost, you will need to start all over.

frost on grass
Tomato seedlings do not tolerate frost, so putting them out too early will mean death.

Also, tomato seeds need warm soil temperatures, ideally 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (23.9 to 26.7 degrees Celsius) in order to germinate properly.  So, you will have to wait until later in the spring to plant them anyway.

If you wait too long to plant in a climate with a short growing season, your tomato plants could be threatened by early fall frosts.

When Should You Plant Tomato Seeds?

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, you should start tomato seeds indoors 5 to 7 weeks before transplanting.  You should transplant tomato seedlings after the last spring frost for your area.

sliced tomato
Start your tomato seeds indoors 5 to 7 weeks before the last spring frost date, when you will transplant the seedlings outdoors.

For example, in my area, the last spring frost date is May 8.  If I start my tomato seeds 7 weeks before that (49 days), I would plant them on March 20 (11 days in March + 30 days in April + 8 days in May = 49 days before last spring frost on May 8).

When planting, bury tomato seeds at a depth of 0.25 inches (0.6 centimeters) and leave 4 inches (10 centimeters) between seeds.  Otherwise, you can plant the seeds in individual cells in a 1020 tray.

For more information, check out my article on standard seed trays (1020 trays).

Keep soil temperatures at 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit to encourage optimal tomato seed germination.

For more information, check out this article on starting seeds from the Michigan State University Extension.

Should You Soak Tomato Seeds Before Planting?

Yes, you can soak tomato seeds before planting to speed up germination.  Tomato seeds generally take 6 to 11 days to germinate with proper soil temperatures.

For more information, check out my article on how long tomato seeds take to germinate.

How Long Does It Take Tomatoes To Grow From Seed?

Tomato seeds can take anywhere from 50 days (7 weeks) to 90 days (almost 3 months) to grow from seed to maturity.  Days to maturity (DTM) is something to take into account when choosing which tomato plants to grow, based on where you live and the length of the growing season.

tomato stakes
Tomatoes can take from 7 weeks to 3 months to grow from seed to mature fruit.

For more information, check out my article on when it is too late to plant tomatoes.

Can You Plant Pepper Seeds Directly In the Ground?

Yes, you can plant pepper seeds directly in the ground.  However, there are some reasons not to do this.

pepper seeds
You should not plant pepper seeds directly in the ground, since they do not tolerate cold well.

First, pepper seedlings do not tolerate frost, which will either kill them or stunt their growth.  If your pepper seedlings die off due to frost, you will need to start all over.

Also, pepper seeds need warm soil temperatures, ideally 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 degrees Celsius) in order to germinate properly.  So, you will have to wait until later in the spring to plant them anyway.

If you wait too long to plant in a climate with a short growing season, your pepper plants could be threatened by early fall frosts.

For more information, check out my article on how to protect pepper plants from cold and frost.

When Should You Plant Pepper Seeds?

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, you should start pepper seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before transplanting.  You should transplant pepper seedlings once nighttime temperatures reach 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius).  Of course, this will be well after the last spring frost date for your area.

frosted leaf
Peppers should not be transplanted outdoors until after the last spring frost date in your location.

For example, in my area, the last spring frost date is May 8.  If I start my pepper seeds 10 weeks before that (70 days), I would plant them on February 27 (1 day in February + 31 days in March + 30 days in April + 8 days in May = 70 days before last spring frost on May 8).

When planting, bury pepper seeds at a depth of 0.25 inches (0.6 centimeters) and leave 4 inches (10 centimeters) between seeds.  Otherwise, you can plant the seeds in individual cells in a 1020 tray.

Keep soil temperatures at 85 degrees Fahrenheit to encourage optimal pepper seed germination.

Should You Soak Pepper Seeds Before Planting?

Yes, you can soak pepper seeds before planting to speed up germination.  Pepper seeds generally take 8 to 14 days to germinate with proper soil temperatures.

For more information, check out my article on how to speed up pepper seed germination.

How Long Does It Take Peppers To Grow From Seed?

Pepper seeds can take anywhere from 60 days (about 9 weeks) to 90 days (almost 3 months) to grow from seed to maturity.  Days to maturity (DTM) is something to take into account when choosing which pepper plants to grow, based on where you live and the length of the growing season.

jalapeno pepper plant
Most pepper plants take 60 to 90 days to grow from transplant to mature plants with fruit. Hot peppers can take even longer!

Conclusion

By now, you know that there are some seeds you can (and should) plant directly in the ground.  You also know that some seeds should be started indoors.

I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information.  If you have any questions about direct sowing, please leave a comment below.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jonathon. I’m the gardening guy (not guru!) who is encouraging everyone to spend more time in the garden. I try to help solve common gardening problems so that you can get the best harvest every year!

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