Start Seeds Indoors or Direct Sow (Plant) Seeds Outdoors?
Are you new to gardening from seed? Have you pondered which seeds should be started indoors and transplanted, or when it might be best to direct sow seeds outdoors? Then you’ve come to the right place! This article will explore the pros and cons of starting seeds indoors versus planting them directly outside. I’ll also share a list of vegetables (and situations) that are better suited for one or the other. Most veggie seeds can be started either indoors or outdoors, yet there are a select few that do not like to be transplanted at all!
What does it mean to “direct sow” seeds?
Direct sow is a gardening method where seeds are planted outside, directly in the soil in their final growing destination (e.g. in a garden plot, raised bed, or large container). There they will sprout, grow, and die. To direct sow seeds outdoors, follow the instructions on your seed package (when the time is right!). As a general rule of thumb, cover seeds with a light layer of soil that is about three times the thickness of the seed itself. Thus, very small seeds are buried far less deeply than larger seeds.
In contrast, seeds may be started indoors, where the young seedlings will eventually be transplanted outdoors to their forever home. By “indoors”, I mean any time or place that seeds are started in containers (seedling trays, small pots, peat moss pods, etc) in a protected location. So, this could mean literally inside a house, as well as in a garage, climate-controlled greenhouse, or similar.
Ideal conditions for seed germination
First, let’s start with a quick overview of the ideal conditions seeds need to sprout and grow, which is important to understand as you begin to navigate the seed-starting world.
- In general, vegetable, herb and flower seeds need two key things to readily sprout: consistent moisture and steady warm temperatures.
- The soil or potting medium that the seeds are planted in should be maintained nicely damp. Never allowed to fully dry out, but not overly soggy either.
- The majority of seeds prefer a temperate range between 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal speedy germination. However, most seeds can and will sprout in the 50’s to 60’s, but at a much slower and less consistent rate.
- Furthermore, keep in mind that a few select vegetables actually prefer slightly cooler soil conditions for germination (50 to 70F) – including lettuce, arugula, onions, peas, carrots, radishes, and turnips. Many of these seeds are ideal to direct sow outside.
- For the best results, seeds should also be started in a fluffy, fine-textured soil. Or, in a sterile soilless seed-starting medium.
- Once seeds germinate and start their life as a seedling, they need ample bright light right away. Seedlings may also need protection from pests or inclimate weather.
- Indoor-raised seedlings should always be hardened off before transplanting outside to avoid shock and damage.
Related article: “Seed Starting 101: How to Sow Seeds Indoors”
Benefits of Starting Seeds Indoors
There are a number of notable benefits to starting seeds indoors over planting them outside, highlighted below. Most avid gardeners start at least some of their seeds inside. Even more, northern gardeners and those with short growing seasons absolutely must start seeds indoors in order to successfully grow and harvest certain crops at all!
Get a Jump Start on the Season
By starting seeds indoors, you are extending your growing season and giving your plants a jump start. When it is still too cold and dark to plant seeds outside, raising seedlings indoors can give the plants weeks or even months of time to begin to mature. This is a huge advantage, particularly for folks with a short growing season! If you plan it right, you will have big, robust, healthy seedlings ready to go in the ground when the growing season begins. While indoor seedlings are still growing in their containers, it also provides you extra time to decide exactly where you want to plant them.
Take cool-season crops like broccoli, cabbage, or cauliflower for example. All of these brassicas take several months from seed to harvest, and are not big fans of high heat or temperature swings. So, if you wait until the spring weather is suitable for planting seeds outdoors, the plants likely will not grow quickly enough to produce a harvestable head before hot weather sets in and causes issues.
Heat-loving summer crops also benefit from getting an early start indoors. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant can take many months before they begin producing edible fruits. Starting them indoors means you’ll be harvesting sooner and longer before chilly fall weather returns once again. Additionally, playing with seeds indoors is a fun way to keep in touch with your gardening hobby during the cold and darker days of the off-season.
Not sure when is the “best time” to start seeds? Reference your Homestead and Chill planting calendar for a visual guide on when to start seeds indoors, transplant seedlings outside, or direct sow seeds outdoors – for every USDA hardiness zone.
Easier to Control Conditions Indoors
When starting seeds indoors, gardeners are able to provide them an ideal controlled climate. Clearly, indoor temperatures are more steady and moderate than outside. Even more, optimal seed-starting conditions (described above) can be achieved with the use of a specialized seed-starting soil medium, seedling heat mats, humidity domes, and grow lights. The result is quick and even seed germination, and accelerated seedling growth compared to the direct sow method.
Outdoors, cool soil or inconsistent water can lead to spotty or slow germination. Cold temperatures and limited daylight hours during the winter months will also make seedlings grow less vigorously, even in frost-free areas. By having all your seeds and seedlings in one concentrated area, it also makes it easier to remember to look after them!
Protection from Pests & Harsh Weather
Baby sprouts are especially vulnerable to damage from frost, pests, or other external threats. We’ve had several garden beds full of just-sprouted seedlings taken out by birds in a single morning! Devastating. Pest insects may also pose a threat, especially soil-borne pests like cutworms and pill bugs. Starting seeds and raising seedlings indoors offers them protection from these things during their most vulnerable time.
If you plant seeds directly outdoors, be prepared to protect the seedlings as soon as they emerge as needed. The same goes for small indoor-raised seedlings after they are hardened off and transplanted outside. Hoops and row covers are the most useful tools we’ve come across for protecting seedlings from birds, insects, critters, frost, extreme heat/sun, and more.
A final benefit of starting seeds in containers is that it buys additional time for any other plants that are still growing in your garden. For example, say you want to grow a fall garden (my favorite!) Most fall garden seeds need to be started during the summer, when you likely still have healthy summer crops occupying your garden beds. Even though summertime is a far easier time to direct sow seeds outside than during the winter, starting seeds indoors instead (or even outside in seedling trays or small pots) allows the other established plants to continue to grow for an additional month or two – and feed you in the meantime!
Benefits of Direct Sowing Seeds
As you can see, there are a number of benefits to starting seeds indoors… but direct sowing seeds outdoors has its advantages too! Most notably, planting seeds directly outside requires fewer supplies or equipment than starting seeds indoors. Also, you won’t need to fuss with the added step of hardening off seedlings when you use the direct sow method. Last but not least, certain types of plants do not like to be transplanted at all (see the list below). In that case, directly sowing seeds is clearly the best choice for those!
Vegetables to always direct sow seeds outdoors:
Notice a theme? Most root vegetables and rhizomes don’t take kindly to transplanting. Attempting to do so will likely cause permanent stunting, or even death to the seedlings. Feel free to visit our grow guides on how to grow potatoes, carrots, radishes, turmeric, and garlic for more tips! Note that garlic, turmeric, and potatoes are not started from traditional seeds. Instead, individual garlic cloves, turmeric rhizomes, and small pieces of ‘seed potatoes’ are planted. These can be pre-sprouted indoors, but not in the same manner as other seedlings.
Vegetables that prefer to be directly sown, but can be carefully transplanted
Are you a “rule breaker” like me? The list of vegetables below are most often recommended to direct sow seeds outside. However, we don’t always follow that suggestion – and I know many other fellow gardeners who do the same! Yet these sensitive veggies do not like their roots ruffled, are more prone to becoming stunted, and may indeed thrive best when directly sown outside.
If you do opt to start these seeds indoors, they should be transplanted soon after, while the seedlings are still quite small. Take care to not disturb their roots too much. Never allow them to become overgrown in their container (aka root bound). To avoid this, either start them in decently-sized containers (such as small 4″ pots) or carefully pot them up as needed.
After a few years of trial and error, we now usually direct sow seeds for beans and peas outside (but not always). On the other hand, we start our shallots, spinach, leeks, beets, kohlrabi, and corn inside first – simply to get a head start. Experiment and see what works best for you. You could even do a side-by-side comparison of both methods!
- Beans (including Fava beans)
Start inside OR direct sow seeds outdoors (all others)
Essentially all other veggies or herbs can technically be started indoors or planted directly outside. However, keep in mind they’ll be subject to all of the pros and cons we’ve explored today! Most herbs are more successful when started indoors. For flowers, follow the recommendations provided on the seed package.
- Bok Choy (and other Asian greens)
- Brussels Sprouts
- Collard Greens
- Mustard Greens
- Squash (Zucchini/Summer Squash* or Winter Squash)
- Swiss Chard
*Click on any of the highlighted vegetables in the list to visit the corresponding grow guide!
Ready to get sowing?
Well folks, that about sums up the pros and cons between starting seeds indoors versus the direct sow method. I hope this discussion and the list of vegetables to direct sow seeds will help you grow strong, healthy plants! Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below. If you found this information to be valuable, please spread the love by sharing or pinning this post! Happy growing.
Don’t miss these related articles:
- Seed Starting 101: How to Sow Seeds Indoors
- 12 Places to Buy Organic, Heirloom, and Non-GMO Garden Seeds
- Using Grow Lights for Seedlings and Indoor Plants
- Top 9 Common Seed Starting Mistakes to Avoid
- How & Why to Feed Seedlings with Seaweed Extract
- Hardening Off Seedlings to Prevent Transplant Shock
- A Beginner’s Guide to Using a Hobby Greenhouse
- How to Build a Raised Garden Bed: A Step-by-Step Guide
- How to Amend & Fertilize a Raised Garden Bed Between Seasons
I’m planning my garden for this year and I have a question about reading seed packets especially regarding direct sow. I plant a square foot garden and so for example the Caravel Carrots seed packet says for bunching 30 seeds/foot in rows 12-18″ apart. I have in my notes that there can be 16 carrot plants per square foot. So do I plant 30 seeds per sf and thin to 16 plants? And how can I 12″ between plants if I plant a sf garden? Can you please help me to understand the seed packet?
Thanks so much!
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Susan, seed packets can be confusing as most of them seem to recommend spacing in regards to growing in rows (giving the farmer or gardener access to the crop from both sides of the row) where most home gardeners don’t necessarily grow in that manner. It seems like you have your spacing down well for your square foot gardening method so I would just sow a bunch of seeds and thin them down to the spacing you like. The only time I may differ from the conventional square foot spacing is if you are growing a carrot that is known to be much larger in size compared to an average carrot. We typically over sow carrot seeds as the germination rate doesn’t seem to be as good as other crops and then thin them down from there. Hope that helps and good luck!
Hi Deanna, I am a new subscriber and excited to start a serious journey with my garden. I have a closet in my house that I would love to use as my seed starting sanctuary, but of course sunlight is bare without a window. I will have grow lights, but do you think that will be sufficient light?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Tarrah, a grow light will be just fine for your indoor seedlings as even a widow won’t offer enough light for them. Just be sure your closet still gets plenty of air flow and maybe even add a fan once the seedlings get larger to help strengthen them as you get closer to hardening them off to be planted outside. Enjoy your new seed starting space and gardening adventure, you will find that it brings so much to your life. Good luck and thank you for your support!
Your beginner’s articles are the best! Do you have one about transferring the seedlings to the garden or beds?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hello Jennifer, unfortunately we haven’t put together a post on that just yet but it is now on the list! We have a few other seedling articles that may help but here is one about Hardening Off Seedlings to Prevent Transplant Shock, which is a key step to planting out seedlings into the garden. Thanks for reading and we will try and get that new article up in a few weeks. If you have a specific question, please feel free to ask. Good luck!