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What’s the Best Way to Plant Your Garden? Direct Sowing vs Transplanting

So you want to grow a vegetable garden this year?

Did you already splurge on a bunch of seed packs at the garden center? The ones with beautiful pictures on the front? I know, trust me I know, it’s so easy to buy seeds.

But now you’re reading the back of the seed packs, you see directions like…

“Transplant after last spring frost”
“Direct sow after last spring frost” …and sometimes “Transplant OR Direct Sow”

“Harden seedlings by reducing water and temperature for a week before transplanting out”

Huh?

Don’t worry.

I’ll help you make sense of these words and figure out the best way to plant YOUR garden.


FROST DATES

Many growing locations, like the Northeast and Northern Midwest areas, can only grow plants part of the year before frost, snow and cold kill them or make them go dormant. Here in MD it is possible to grow plants year round but it’s a little tricky and not always predictable. Let’s just say it takes a little more expertise and attention.

If you live in a climate that receives frost or snow, you need to know your “Frost Dates”. The space on the calendar between these 2 dates is your “frost free growing season”, which means it’s safe to plant during this time. A heavy frost will kill many plants, so I call this a “killing frost”.

You can easily find your “Frost Dates” by searching online. Just enter the name of where you live and the words “frost dates”. Here in MD it’s safe to plant tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers after Mother’s Day.

Average Last Spring Frost: Approximate date (2 week swing either in either direction) of when you can expect to get the last “killing frost” of the spring. Remember this date is an ‘“average”, so it means if you plant your seedlings on your Average Last Spring Frost Date, there is still a 50% chance that you could lose your plants to frost. IT HAPPENS! Trust me 😉

Average First Autumn Frost: Approximate date (2 week swing in either direction) of when you can expect to get the first “killing frost” of the fall. Again, this is an average, so there is 50% chance it could come sooner or later. In MD it’s usually later.


DIRECT SOWING VS. TRANSPLANTING

When it comes to planting your veggie garden, you have 2 options:

1. DIRECT SOWING: This means you directly plant the seed into your garden. You are…

  • walking out to your garden

  • sticking the seed in the ground (ok there’s a little more to it)

2. TRANSPLANTING: This means you are…

  • sowing the seeds into containers indoors (egg cartons, seed trays, yogurt cups, etc)

  • growing them indoors for a few weeks

  • gradually acclimating them to outdoor conditions (“hardening off”)

  • planting them in your garden

As you can see, Direct Sowing is easier, faster and more beginner friendly.

But unfortunately, not all veggies perform best when they are Direct Sown. And you have a lot more weeding to do when you Direct Seed.

WHICH METHOD SHOULD I CHOOSE?

The answer to this question is determined by YOUR needs and the PLANT’S needs. Here are a few questions to consider:

1. How long is your growing season?

Most seed packs will tell you approximately how many days it takes for the plant to grow from seed to fruit. People who live in climates with a longer growing season can directly sow more types of plants.

EXAMPLE: If I directly sow tomato seeds on May 15 (my Average Last Spring Frost), it means I get tomatoes, on average, in late August or September. That’s a long time to wait!

If I want tomatoes earlier in the season, I can start them indoors up to 8 weeks earlier and transplant them on May 15 to get tomatoes in July instead of August.

2. What does the seed pack recommend?

It’s wise to follow the recommendation on the seed pack. Some plants are quite slow-growing (like leeks & brussel sprouts) and must be started indoors several weeks before being transplanted to harvest before Fall.

If the seed pack suggests you can try EITHER method, read on.

3. Do you have the time, space and dedication to start seeds indoors?

Think about it.

Once you decide to start seeds indoors, you cannot leave them unattended for more than 24-48 hours. That’s right, they are little babies that need constant tending or they might die.

You would not believe the stories I’ve heard from people who have to hire a “Plant Sitter” when they realize they are vacationing for Spring Break…and the plant sitter kills their seedlings.

THE PROS AND CONS OF DIRECT SOWING VS TRANSPLANTS

Still not sure what is best for you? This may help you decide.

DIRECT SOWING

Pros:

  • Easy

  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • You’ve got to water the area often to make sure the seeds germinate

  • Weeds. Can you tell the difference between weeds and the plant you’re trying to grow?

  • Longer wait for delicious food

TRANSPLANTING

Pros:

  • More predictable results

  • Earlier crops

  • Tangible results – you get to “go plant your garden” and see results at the end of the day

Cons:

  • Transplants need to be cared for every.single.day.

  • Transplants need to be “hardened off” before transplanting (acclimate the seedlings to living outdoors by bringing them outside for 1 hour per day, gradually increasing by an hour each day until they are used to being outdoors 24 hours per day). Plants that are not hardened off may experience “transplant shock” and die

  • Supplies can be costly like grow lights, tables, soil, trays, heat mats…

  • Not everyone has good space for growing transplants

  • Time consuming

  • Growing seeds indoors is more challenging than growing them in a greenhouse. Ask me how I know…
So that’s some food for thought.

Here’s some more.

If you want to dive into gardening this year I am offering a 4 class series on how to start your garden.

I also offer consultations for home gardeners (as well as farmers).

And, of course, we offer hardy, organic transplants for your garden.

Shop now. or just show up to our Plant Sale on May 5th, 10 am-1 pm.

Don’t really want to plant your own garden after all? Join our Whole Season CSA – we’d love to grow for you!