What Does Direct Sowing vs. Transplanting Mean?


What does it mean to direct sow seeds? How do I know if I should direct sow? These are common questions I get from readers, so I’d like to take some time to define some of these terms and also cover the pros and cons of direct sowing and the alternative:  transplanting.

Before I start, there’s something you should know. The question “should I direct sow this plant” is best answered on a case by case basis, and there are no wrong answers. The more you garden, the more you’ll start to see what methods work for you and your climate. 

Gardening is not “one size fits all” and sometimes we have to make our own rules in the garden and learn from our own mistakes.

What is direct sowing?

For those of who don’t know, direct sowing refers to the act of taking your seeds and sowing them directly into your garden soil—no seed starting pots or indoor setups.

Here are some benefits of direct sowing:

No transplant shock. Your seeds start in the garden and never have to be moved from indoors or transplanted from pots.

◊NO extra materials. You don’t need a grow light, heat mat, seed starting mixes, seed pots……well you get the idea. Direct sowing is very much the natural process of how a seed grows in the wild.

◊Less maintenance. You don’t need to adjust grow lights, check moisture constantly, and do the extra work of up-potting or transplanting.

◊Good for large seeds or fast-growing plants. For example, beans have larger seeds than most, and they can mature so quickly that it really doesn’t make sense to nurture them in any environment outside of the garden.

◊Mimic nature’s Winter temperatures. Some plants might prefer to be directly sowed because they require a period of cold stratification. Cold stratification refers to subjecting a seed to cold (like Winter) so that it becomes triggered and can break dormancy. Sometimes this is achieved by placing your seeds in the fridge or out in a cold frame during Winter, but sometimes it is easier to directly sow the seeds in Fall and let them feel the cold temperatures naturally outdoors.

What is transplanting?

Transplanting refers to taking a baby seedling and planting it in its permanent location in the garden. This process means youve probably started your seeds in trays, pots, or other container with the intention of taking those baby seedlings and moving them to their permanent location in the garden at a future date. 

Benefits of Transplanting Seedlings

Whether you start your seed indoors, in pots, in pellets, or in seedlings trays all of these things will eventually require you to transplant the seedlings into the garden. Some of the benefits of choosing to transplant seedlings are:

◊Selecting strong, healthy plants. You get to see which plants are growing strong and only plant those in your garden. If something didn’t germinate well or is struggling, you can save the space and not plant it.

◊Protection from pests. As an urban gardener, I confront a myriad of pests—roly polies, earwigs, squirrels, birds, slugs, and more! I can’t tell you how many times I have sown an entire row of radishes only to have my sprouts completely decimated by the time they poke out of the soil. Sure, you can cover your seedlings from birds and digging critters, but often times it’s roly polies or slugs that eat them.

◊Maximize garden space. Urban gardening also means space constraints. Sowing seeds in pots versus in the ground can actually help you prolong the growing season! By starting seeds in pots rather than directly in the garden, you can actually let older plants stay in the garden longer, while getting a head start on the next round of  seedlings in pots.

◊Avoid crazy weather swings.

◊Get a head start on Spring. While it is still too cold outside to plant, you can already get your garden growing by starting seeds indoors for transplanting.

What works for me…

In my experience, the decision to direct sow is more based on your garden’s environment and limitations rather than any specific plant needs.

For my garden, I choose to mostly transplant. This is almost entirely due to two things: pest problems and space constraints. In fact, my pest problems were so bad last year that EVERY single sunflower in my garden was started in a pellet and then transplanted into the garden. You can read about growing sunflowers HERE.

I also might be notorious for doing of mix of half direct sowing and half transplanting to see which set of seedlings performs better. Your garden should be fun—-experiment!

Some surprising results

I’ve already mentioned that I’ve transplanted sunflowers before, but here are some other plants that are traditionally recommended for direct sowing but I started them in pots instead (all for different reasons—weather, pests, space, etc). 




peas *read my Guide to Growing Edible Peas



I’ve even seen gardeners start radishes, carrots, and beets in pots for transplanting too!

Tips for Success

If you are worried about starting something in a pot or seedling tray for transplanting that is typically advised to be “directly sown” here are some tips:

Choose a larger container. They make large peat pellets that will allow fast growing plants—like beans or sunflowers—grow larger before needing to be moved out to the garden. You could also try using 4″ pots as opposed to those tiny seed starting cells.

Don’t let your plants get root bound. If the roots are clearly getting too massive for your container, this can cause them to wilt, become stunted, or die.

Minimize transplant shock by not disturbing roots when you go to transplant, making sure you harden off your seedlings appropriately if started indoors,-you can check out my article How to harden off seedlings Here-, and don’t transplant in the middle of a hot day or heatwave.

Read up on what you’re planting. For example, it is said that poppies do not do well with transplanting, but each year I start mine in pots before putting them in the garden. My secret is trying to mimic the natural cycle of poppies. In nature, their seed pods spread seed during the late Summer. It survives the Winter and blooms early in Spring. Therefore, I actually start my poppies in Fall outdoors! I let them stay outside during Winter and then transplant them into the garden in very Early Spring.

Additional Notes

In my own garden, I do try and direct sow radishes, chamomile, and lettuces mixes. I also prefer to direct sow carrots (read my carrot grow guide) because I have never had an issue with pests and carrots! Fava beans too….

Please note that this is based on my experiences gardening here in Southern California, Zone 10b. Every climate has different demands so it’s up to you to embrace the patterns you notice in your own gardens and establish your own set of “rules” that work for you.

Other articles you might find interesting:

What Type of Garden is Right For You? Raised Beds, In-Ground, and More!

10 Heat Loving Vegetables & Flowers to Grow From Seed

5 Tips for Stronger Seedlings

⇓ What are your experiences with direct sowing? Was this article helpful? I’d love to hear what works for your garden! ⇓

PS: Tag me in your garden photos with #FreckledCA on Instagram!

Meet Randi

Urban gardening is my jam. I’m Randi, California girl who obsessively gardens to grow food and flowers around my urban home. Seasonal, simple living is what inspires me~ I hope it will inspire you too. Join me in crafting a life and home connected to the garden Read More>>>>

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