How to Know When to Sow a Seed or a Plant in Your Garden

which vegetables to direct seed

It’s amazing that a tiny seed will swell and sprout and eventually grow into an earthy orange carrot, a towering tomato plant, or a sprawling cucumber vine. We can’t have a garden without seeds and plants; they’re what make our gardens literally spring to life.

But, not every vegetable is planted the same way. Some vegetables are commonly planted by seeds and to grow others you’ll need to have a plant instead of a seed.

When you’re planning your garden and ordering and gathering supplies for the season, one of the most important things to know is whether you need seeds or plants for each vegetable you want to grow.

In this article, you’ll learn which vegetables require direct seeding and which vegetables are transplanted. At the end, you’ll have a completed shopping list and know exactly what you need for the upcoming season.

direct seed vs transplant

Direct Seeding or Transplanting: How to Know the Best Approach

Imagine yourself out in your garden ready to plant.

Some days this will mean opening a sparkling new seed packet and gently placing the seeds into their new home in the soil.

At other times, you’ll coax a plant out of its pot and dig it a nice roomy hole where it can set down roots.

These are two very different ways of planting vegetables: with a seed or with a plant.

Some vegetables do best when they’re planted in the garden as seeds, and some fare better as plants. When you have a plan for how you’re going to plant each vegetable, you’ll be able to set yourself up for success by making sure you have the supplies you need on hand when the garden season rolls around.

which vegetables to direct seed

Vegetables Planted By Seed

Taking a seed directly out of the packet and planting it right into your garden bed is called direct seeding. If you’ve ever grown green beans, carrots, or spinach, you’ve likely planted them in your garden this way.

There are various reasons why vegetables are direct-seeded.

Some vegetable seed is very inexpensive and reliable, so you know it has a good chance of germinating in many different conditions—radishes and green beans are a good example.

Some vegetables don’t like it when their roots are disturbed, so planting a seedling isn’t a good idea. It makes sense that root crops fall into this category, such as carrots, beets, and turnips.

The advantages of direct seeding are:

  • Direct seeding allows you to plant a large space of the garden very quickly and easily.
  • You don’t have to start and care for the plants in your house, which cuts down on the work involved in growing these vegetables.
  • Buying seeds is generally less expensive than purchasing plants.
  • You have access to a large array of interesting and unique varieties, especially if you order online from seed companies.

The drawbacks of direct seeding are:

  • Newly planted sees need a lot of initial attention. You’ll need to make sure the garden bed stays consistently moist until the seeds germinate. That means you’ll need to keep the garden bed watered if you’re not getting rain.
  • Seeds that just germinated (sprouted from the soil) have very tiny leaves, so they’re often more vulnerable to insects and pests.
  • Newly germinated seeds also don’t compete with weeds well since they’re so small. You’ll often notice that the weeds are growing at the same rate as the vegetables.
  • If you overplant, or too many seeds germinate, you may have to go back and thin out your plants to give them the room they need to grow.

Because seeds need so much attention initially, if you’re someone who is unable to pay close attention to your garden, you may want to consider growing more transplanted vegetables instead of direct-seeded ones.

If you’re a beginning gardener or someone who has a community garden plot or garden away from their home, you may also want to focus on growing as many transplanted vegetables as possible.

direct seeding vegetables

If you’re planning on growing anything in the following list of direct-seeded vegetables, you’ll need to make sure you purchase seed packets before you’re ready to plant.

Direct-seeded vegetables:
arugula, all beans, beets, carrots, cilantro, corn, dill, garlic, edamame, parsnip, peas, potatoes, radishes, salad mix, spinach, turnips

Where should you buy seeds?
I don’t recommend waiting until the first nice day in spring and then running out to your local garden store to stock up on seeds. This will likely lead to buying things you don’t need and wasting a lot of money.

It’s virtually impossible to stand in a garden store and patiently read the descriptions on the backs of the packets. And without this information, you may end up choosing things that aren’t suited to your garden.

That’s why ordering seed catalogs is an important first step in planning a successful season.

When using a catalog to plan your garden you’ll have plenty of time to sit down, read about the different varieties and consciously choose the ones that seem to fit your particular garden.

Not all seed companies are created equal. This post shares my top recommended seed catalogues as sources of reliable, productive, tasty, and beautiful vegetables.

You can also shop directly from these seed companies from their website if you don’t want a print catalog.

And watch how excited I get when I find seed catalogs in my mailbox in this fun little video.

direct seeding method

How do you know which varieties to grow?
What varieties you choose to grow in your garden are extremely important.

Once you sit down with a cup of tea and start looking through your seed catalogs you might feel overwhelmed with all the varieties out there. There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes in the world. How do you choose which ones to grow?

Throughout my years of gardening, I’ve learned that not all varieties are created equal. What variety you plant can be the difference between success and failure.

And just because a variety performs well in my home garden in Wisconsin doesn’t mean it will be as productive in a garden in Washington or Georgia.

Depending on the time of year and where you live, you can find information about the best varieties for your area from the following sources:

Local Vegetable Farmers
Your local organic vegetable farmers can be a great source of information and advice. They do a lot of trialing of different varieties from year to year.

And they’re focused on finding great-performing vegetable varieties since they grow them for a living. If you have a farmer you patronize at your local market each week, consider asking her for variety recommendations for specific vegetables you’re thinking about growing.

Gardener Friends & Neighbors
Other ideas for finding stand out varieties for your garden are to ask gardeners in your local community what they have the best luck with.

You can do this in person, through email, or even in a Facebook group for gardeners in your city, town or state. (Find the one for Wisconsin here.)

State University Cooperative Extension
Many state universities publish articles and booklets with variety recommendations for gardeners in their state. Here’s an example from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension.

Cornell University also has a database of vegetable varieties for gardeners, including reviews from gardeners all over the world. If you register with their site you can sort the reviews and recommendations by location.

Order from Reputable Seed Companies
Personally, I prefer to order from well-know seed companies that are passionate about providing high-performing varieties for small and mid-size organic farms (see my favorite seed sources here).

That way I know I’m getting varieties that are geared towards taste, performance, and reliability.

These companies also tend to carry varieties that are newly bred to withstand certain diseases and pests, since that’s something organic farmers deal with every season.

Garden Writers and Educators
I’ve trialed a lot of varieties in my garden over the years and love to share my recommendations. And so do lots of other professional garden writers, bloggers and educators.

In this post I highlight unusual vegetable varieties that are fun to grow. Read about 15 purple varieties to spice up your garden. And learn more about how I strategically choose which varieties to grow in my garden.

My book, Smart Start Garden Planner, shares some of my all-time favorite varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. In the back of the book, I created a table that lists every commonly grown vegetable, the important things you need to know about it, such as how many days it takes to get a harvest, and my recommended varieties. See a sample of the book and grab your copy here.

Action Item: Print out this seed_and_plant_shopping_list from my Smart Start Garden Planner. It will help you keep track of what seeds you need to order and which plants you need to buy or start at home.

direct seeding advantages

Vegetables Planted By Plant

When you take a vegetable plant, dig a hole in the soil, and plant it into your garden, it’s called transplanting.

The vegetable plant is usually called a seedling or a transplant. It’s a baby plant grown from seed by you in your home or by a nursery or farmer in a greenhouse.

Why do we transplant some vegetables instead of direct seeding them?

The advantages of transplanting are:

  • Gardeners who live in colder climates with shorter seasons can give certain vegetables a head start by planting them as plants instead of seeds. This ensures they’ll have enough time to grow to full size once they’re outside in the garden. Peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes fall into this category.
  • Some vegetable seeds, like peppers, herbs, and many flowers, take extra care to germinate. It would be difficult to give them the attention they need in the changing conditions of the garden, so it’s easier to either start the seeds inside or buy plants.
  • Seedlings make it easy to measure out the spacing between plants in your garden. This is especially important if you’re trying to grow as much food in your garden as possible. You also won’t need to go back and thin out dense plantings like you sometimes do with direct seeded vegetables.
  • You can start seeds at home! Learning how to grow your own organic plants in the later winter can be a joyful skill to add to your gardening toolkit. There’s nothing quite like tending to vibrant green plants to get you excited for the upcoming season.

The disadvantages of transplanting are:

  • You need to find a source of plants. Although it is possible to order seedlings online, it’s often more cost-effective to purchase them locally. Luckily for most of us, we should be able to find plants at local nurseries, plant sales, and farmers markets. If you don’t have those local resources where you live, talk to gardener friends in your community to see if you can buy some of their extra plants or order online.
  • You’re limited by the available varieties. You’ll only be able to purchase the varieties other people decide to grow into plants. Personally, I have very specific varieties I like to grow because they perform really well in my garden year after year. To be honest, I don’t often see many of those varieties for sale at local nurseries. Probably because some of them are more expensive specialty varieties that are not widely available.

how to direct seed vegetables

Transplanted vegetables:
asparagus, basil, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, collards, eggplant, garlic chives, kale, leeks, marjoram, mint, onion, onion chives, oregano, parsley, peppers, raspberries, rhubarb, rosemary, sage, shallots, strawberries, sweet potatoes, tarragon, thyme, tomatillos, tomatoes

If you’re planning on growing any of the vegetables from the list above, you’ll need to either purchase plants or grow your own at home.

And because variety can mean the difference between success and failure, where you buy your vegetable plants really does matter.

So, where should you buy your seedlings this year?

Where to buy plants in person.
My number one preferred source of seedlings is local organic vegetable farmers. Buying from someone who is growing those same varieties with success in your area means the plants are more likely to produce a bumper crop for you, too.

You can also ask the farmer questions, get growing tips, and even ask for suggestions for her own personal favorites.

Stay away from the big box store when it comes to buying vegetable plants! The seedlings sold there are not necessarily selected to do well in your local climate.

The variety on the shelf might be more acclimated to a garden in Texas than one in Wisconsin. Those are two very different worlds.

Where to buy plants online.
If you’re not able to purchase plants in person, there are several sources online for high quality, organic vegetable plants.

Garlic, Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes

The seed for these vegetables is very easy to find online at many different seed companies.

Fruit trees & Berry Bushes
Fruit trees and berry bushes are also prolific online.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Raintree Nursery

I also rounded up some Etsy sellers who are selling raspberry plants here.

Other Vegetables
These companies ships organic vegetable plants to your door. I’m not affiliated with any of them and the only company I have experience with is Seed Savers Exchange.

Seed Savers Exchange

The Organic Harvest

The Tasteful Garden

Mountain Valley Growers

How to know which varieties to grow.
My suggestions for deciding which varieties of seedlings to grow in your garden are the same as the ones we discussed in the direct seeded vegetables section above.

Action Item: If you’re growing any transplanted vegetables in your garden this season, you’ll need to make sure you have the seedlings ready to go when it’s time to plant. 

If you start your own seeds at home, you’ll grow the plants yourself. If not, then you’ll need to buy them from a local farmers’ market or nursery or online.

Print out this seed and plant shopping list from my Smart Start Garden Planner. It will help you keep track of what seeds you need to order and which plants you need to buy or start at home.

vegetables to direct seed

By Plant or Seed…It’s Your Choice

There are a few vegetables that will do just fine whether they’re direct-seeded or transplanted, so it’s ultimately your choice.

Keep in mind that planting seedlings can give you a jump start on the season. Instead of waiting for seeds to germinate in the garden, you can skip over that waiting period and plant a seedling instead.

For example, I like to grow a few kohlrabi in my garden in spring. I want them to grow to harvest size as quickly as possible because I’m starved for fresh vegetables at that time of year.

So, I start them by seed in my house in late winter and transplant the seedlings into the garden in spring even though they grow just fine when direct-seeded.

Since I’m giving them a head start of at least a month in the house, because it’s still too cold to plant them directly into the garden, I’m able to harvest my first kohlrabi a week (or several weeks) earlier than I would if I’d planted them directly into the garden in spring.

how to direct seed vegetables

Vegetables grown by plant or seed:
bok choy, cucumber, fennel, kohlrabi, lettuce (head), melons, okra, pumpkins, scallions, summer squash, swiss chard, winter squash

Bringing It All Together

To complete this important step in garden planning, take the list of vegetables you’re planning to grow this year and figure out how each one is planted. You can use the lists above, or if you have a copy of my Smart Start Garden Planner, you can use the “Direct Seed or Transplant” column on the Veggie Essentials Cheat Sheet as a reference.

Print out this Seed and Plant Shopping List to keep track of which seeds you to need to order, which plants you need to start at home, and which plants you’re going to buy. Don’t worry about variety or amount just yet, you can figure that out later when you starting looking through your seed catalogs.

Additional Resources for Garden Planning

I’ve written lots of articles on this site to assist you with garden planning. You can find them all on this page. Or check out some of these:

How to Compare Vegetables to Decide What’s Worth it To Grow

The Best Vegetables to Grow in a Community Garden Plot

How to start a small vegetable garden and make the most of it

Amazon Storefront: You can find my favorite gardening books, tools, seeds, supplies and more all gathered in one spot here.

 

My book, Smart Start Garden Planner, will help you work through creating a personalized garden plan for this season. It’s packed full of beautiful photos, tons of worksheets, and tips and techniques to create your own blueprint for what a successful season in your garden looks like.

Check out the book here.

 

 

What you decide to grow in your garden this season is a purely personal choice. But, whether you want to grow a bed full of direct-seeded spinach or 20 transplanted peppers, I hope this article has helped you start to become a more organized, knowledgeable, and prepared gardener!

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