Direct Seeding vs. Indoor Sowing: Which is Better?

Are you trying to decide between indoor sowing and direct seeding this season? There are many benefits to both, depending on the type of garden you are growing. In this article, gardening expert and former organic farmer Logan Hailey looks at the pros and cons of both sowing methods.

Gardener is direct seeding seeds into the ground on the left, and sowing indoors into trays on the right.


Direct seeding is sowing seeds straight into your garden soil, while transplanting involves starting seeds ahead of time in a protected indoor growing area. Sowing seeds is one of the most exciting parts of growing a garden, but there is a lot of pressure to get things right so the plant can into a strong, fruitful crop,

As you tuck a hopeful little seed into the soil, you can already envision the overflowing baskets of produce that you hope to harvest a few months down the line. Before you empty your seed packets, you may be asking yourself:

  • Should you plant the seeds straight into your garden beds?
  • Should you start your plants indoors?
  • Which plants have to seeded in place and which do better as transplants?

After growing thousands of pounds of fresh produce on over 15 different organic farms, I discovered a few secrets that the most successful farmers and gardeners use to ensure maximum seeding success. Let’s dig into everything you need to know about direct sowing versus seed-starting in trays or pots.

Overview: Direct Seeding vs. Starting Seeds Indoors

Close-up of a woman's hand planting pumpkin seeds in open ground against the background of growing sprouts. Pumpkin seeds are white, flat, oval. In the foreground are freshly sown rounded brownish seeds. The sprouts are pale green and purplish pink.
Direct sowing involves planting seeds in a garden bed, while indoor cultivation involves planting seeds in trays or pots with further transplantation into open ground.

Direct sowing is exactly what it sounds like: You plant a seed directly into the garden bed where it will grow for the rest of its lifespan. Long before greenhouses and nurseries, ancient farmers sowed their seeds straight into the soil the same way that nature does.

On the other hand, indoor seed-starting is a modern innovation that allows you to take more control over the germination and early growth process.

Like a baby in a nursery, starting seeds indoors creates a safer, more protected environment that gives the seed a head-start. Once the seedling has developed into a strong adolescent plant, it can be transplanted outside.

Many traditional gardeners believe that seeds should always be planted in place, however they can also have a lower success rate because of conditions out of your control. The weather, soil, rodents, birds, pests, and rainfall can all affect germination rates.

While it requires more equipment and time, indoor seed starting can offer more predictable results. But some crops have sensitive roots that cannot handle transplanting.

Direct Seeding Starting Seeds Indoors
Seed planted directly in place Seed sown in a pot and transplanted later
Risk of poor germination Higher germination rate
Must wait until the weather has settled Get a head-start on seeding before the weather warms
Straightforward and simple More supplies and time required
Unpredictable outdoor environment Climate-controlled indoor environment
Avoids disrupting the root system Risk of transplant shock
Avoids plants becoming rootbound Plants can become rootbound in their containers
Birds, rodents, and pests may eat the seeds Seeds are protected from pests
Best for root crops (carrots, radishes, parsnips, etc.) Best for long-season crops (tomatoes, kale, squash, etc.)

Benefits and Drawbacks of Direct Seeding

Direct sowing is the “old-fashioned” way of gardening, but it has a wide range of benefits. In fact, some crops have to be directly sown because they can’t handle the root disturbance of transplanting.

What is Direct Sowing?

Close-up of a farmer's hand planting corn seeds into the ground in a sunny garden. Corn seeds are small, hard, square, yellow in color with white bases. The soil is loose, dark brown.
With direct seeding, vegetables can be subject to temperature fluctuations and stress, resulting in slow growth.

Direct seeding means planting a seed straight into the outdoor soil where it will grow for the rest of its life. While transplanted seeds start their lives in a pot, directly-sown seeds never have their roots growth disrupted. This can be highly advantageous for crops that are sensitive to root disturbance, such as carrots or squash.

However, directly sown crops are also exposed to more temperature fluctuation and environmental stress during their early growth. This can lead to direct-sown vegetables growing more slowly than their transplanted counterparts.

Is Direct Sowing Better?

Top view, close-up of male hands pouring carrot seeds from a paper bag into the palm, against the background of loose dark brown soil. The seeds are small, flat, light beige in color, round in shape.
A crop such as carrots must be direct-sown, as it does not tolerate transplantation.

Under the right conditions with the proper amount of irrigation, direct-seeded vegetables can do exceptionally well. If you use row fabric and raised beds, the chances of success dramatically increase.

In fact, some crops like carrots have to be direct-sown because they won’t tolerate transplanting. Studies show that direct seeding can be beneficial for some crops and detrimental to others, depending on the variety, conditions, and climate:

Ultimately, the success of direct-seeding depends on the crop type and the conditions. Carrots, corn, radishes, and squash may thrive when they are seeded straight into the garden. On the other hand, onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes excel as transplants.

Drawbacks of Direct Seeding

Direct seeding can delay your spring gardening. You can’t get started as early in the season because you have to wait until the weather warms sufficiently for seeds to germinate outdoors.

Slower Growth

Pepper sprouts in the spunbond garden. Close-up of growing pepper seedlings in a garden, with covered beds. The seedlings have erect, pale green stems and several beautiful, oblong, heart-shaped, pale green leaves with smooth edges.
To create the best microclimate for seed germination in the open ground, it is recommended to use special row covers or tunnels.

For long-season crops like peppers or leeks, colder zones may not get enough frost-free days for the plant to grow from seed to maturity outdoors. This is why so many gardeners opt to start long-season crops indoors.

When the average last frost date of the spring arrives, you could be planting out a 5-week-old pepper seedling rather than sowing pepper seeds directly in the ground.

However, there are a few ways to moderate the outdoor seeding environment. You can use row cover or low plastic tunnels over your garden beds to create a cozier microclimate for seeds.

A woven or plastic cover over the bed can buffer the soil against temperature extremes and allow for earlier planting. Still, transplanted crops often out-perform direct-sown crops in many gardens.

Pest Pressure

Cabbage flea (Psylliodes chrysocephala) on damaged oilseed rape, canola (Brassica napus) in a sunny garden, in a bed. The sprout of Brassica napus is small, has thin short stems and a pair of smooth, heart-shaped, medium green leaves. A small cabbage flea sits on one of the leaves. It is a small black and blue insect with long antennae.
Direct-sown seeds have a greater risk of being attacked by pests than transplanted plants.

Additionally, direct seeding presents more risks to your baby seeds. Rodents, birds, and pests are eager to chomp up seeds that are left out in the garden.

For example, a direct-seeded broccoli plant is more likely to get infested with flea beetles as soon as it emerges from the soil.

A transplanted broccoli will be stronger and more resilient by the time it gets into the garden because it has already grown for several weeks in a protected indoor environment. Again, row cover can help protect seeds from hungry animals in the garden, but it is not fool-proof.

Soil and Moisture Irregularities

Top view, close-up of a zucchini sprout in dry soil, in a garden. The zucchini sprout has short pale green stems with a pair of oval bright green leaves with smooth edges and one rounded green leaf with serrated edges.
Excessively wet or dry sandy soil can reduce seed germination.

Lastly, inconsistencies in soil texture and moisture can reduce your germination rates. Waterlogged clay soil or drought-prone sandy soils can make it difficult for vegetable seeds to reliably germinate.

Indoor seeding tends to work better because the planting medium is sterile, fine-textured, and evenly moistened.

Best Garden Plants to Direct Seed

Close-up of a ripening radish plant in a sunny garden. The plant has an edible rounded pink root crop and a beautiful rosette of oblong oval green leaves with coarsely serrated edges.
Radishes are most often sown by direct sowing.

For the greatest direct sowing success, be sure to incorporate compost, prepare a fine seedbed, and supply continuous moisture.

These crops are most commonly direct seeded:

  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Radishes
  • Baby lettuce and mesclun mixes
  • Spinach
  • Beans
  • Leeks
  • Peas
  • Squash
  • Melons
  • Cucumbers
  • Pumpkins
  • Beets
  • Turnips
  • Sunflowers

Benefits & Drawbacks of Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting seeds indoors can help you get a head-start to spring planting. As seedlings develop in the cozy protection of a seed tray or pot, they can grow stronger before they are transplanted out into the elements.

While a direct-seeded crop may be more adjusted to the outdoor weather, transplanted crops tend to have earlier yields and higher yields. You can also save money on seeds because germination rates are more reliable in the controlled conditions of a seed-starting tray.

In northern climates with short growing seasons, gardening would be almost impossible without indoor seed-starting. In southern or tropical climates, transplanting is mostly advantageous for the consistent germination and pest protection benefits.

Aside from weather, starting your seeds indoors can reduce the risk of rodents, birds, deer, or bugs eating your baby plants before they get a chance to get established.

Is It Better to Start Seeds Indoors?

Close-up of a woman's hand planting seeds in a starter tray for seed germination. In the foreground are peat pots with freshly planted pepper seeds bearing white labels labeled "pepper". The starting tray is black, plastic, consists of deep square cells filled with soil. The starter seed tray is placed in a green plastic tray.
Growing seeds indoors allows you to provide them with the necessary conditions for successful germination.

Most garden crops do better when they are started indoors and transplanted out into the garden. They get an easier start to life so they can grow larger and faster once out in the field.

As long as the seeds are planted at the proper depth, the protected indoor environment provides more consistent temperatures, finer soil blends, and easier access to water.

All of these factors can ensure more even, reliable seed germination, and early plant success, leading to quicker harvests and higher yields.

Is Transplanting Better than Direct Seeding?

The process of transplanting tomato seedlings in open ground. Close-up of female hands in white gloves transplanting a tomato seedling into the ground, against the background of other tomato seedlings in black plastic pots. Tomato seedlings have tall, hairy, pale green stems with complex bright green leaves, consisting of oblong oval leaflets with coarsely serrated edges.
Transplanted crops are usually healthier and produce higher yields.

Transplanting is usually better than direct seeding because the transplanted crop has a head-start. Imagine that your average last frost date is April 15. On that day, you can go out and direct-sow a pepper seed into the soil. Right next to it, you can transplant a robust pepper seedling that you started indoors 8 weeks ago.

The transplanted pepper will have a HUGE advantage over the seed placed into the soil. It will be stronger, healthier, and more mature, leading to a quicker harvest and higher yields. This is especially true for a slow-growing crop.

In general, larger crops with longer days to maturity do best with transplanting. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and artichokes all excel when started indoors. Scientific research validates this:

There is even some evidence that transplanted crops are more nutritional than direct-seeded vegetables! Ultimately, transplanting is typically the best choice for beginner gardeners.

Drawbacks of Starting Seeds Indoors

While starting seeds indoors and transplanting them later clearly has advantages for crop health, the process still has its drawbacks.


Top view, close-up of female hands in blue gloves holding peat trays for seedlings on a white table, there are tools and potting mix in a box nearby. The tray has square deep cells with drainage holes.
For indoor sowing, you will need a lot of equipment.

The main downside to indoor seeding is the upfront cost of materials. Fortunately, you only have to invest in that equipment at the beginning of the season. A greenhouse or kitchen grow light setup can last you for a decade or more.

While direct seeding only requires soil, garden beds, and water, indoor seeding calls for more equipment, including:

  • Seed-starting trays or pots
  • Seed-starting mix or potting mix (soil-less blends can help reduce disease)
  • Grow lights (if you don’t have a bright window or greenhouse)
  • Plastic greenhouse or glasshouse
  • Heating mats (optional, but helpful)
  • Ambient temperature regulation
  • Fans
  • Labels
  • Humidifiers or domes
  • Watering can or hose

Time and Effort

Close-up of a woman's hand watering from a red watering can trays with sprouts in a greenhouse. Trays are black, plastic, have deep cells filled with soil and germinated crops.
Seeding trays require regular monitoring of watering, light, airflow and humidity levels.

Starting seeds indoors also requires significantly more time and effort. Seed trays have to be monitored and watered almost daily. There is more planning and preparation required. You have to worry about light, airflow, heating mats, and humidity levels.

You will also need to properly time your seed-sowing and transplanting schedule. If you transplant too early, the seedling may not have enough roots to handle the move. If you forget to transplant at the proper time, you risk your plants becoming rootbound or overgrowing their containers.

For baby greens or salad mixes, you can also save a lot of time by broadcasting (direct seeding) rather than transplanting. This will give you a medley of quick-harvested young greens.

Root Disturbance

Close-up of cabbage seedlings, with root balls, in a bed in the garden, against the background of a basil seedling in a black plastic pot. Cabbage seedlings have beautiful rosettes of young, round, pale green leaves with white veins and slightly serrated edges.
Crops such as brassicas and nightshade tolerate transplanting well, unlike squash-family crops.

Root disturbance is another major concern. Crops like brassicas (broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.) and nightshades (peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, etc.) don’t seem to mind transplanting. In fact, these crops consistently perform better when they are started in trays.

However, squash-family crops (melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, zucchini, etc.) are much more sensitive to root disturbance. Certain root crops like carrots and radishes typically fail at transplanting altogether.

Transplant Shock

Close-up of green leaf lettuce seedlings outdoors in a tray at an organic farm. Seedlings are hardened in the open air, before transplanting into the ground. Seedlings have small rosettes of oblong, oval, bright green leaves with slightly wavy edges.
Another problem with seedlings sown indoors is the possibility of transplant shock, so it is recommended to harden them.

Transplant shock happens when intense weather, drought, harsh sunlight, or another sudden change severely stresses out newly transplanted seedlings. Yellowing, stunted growth, and wilted plants are the key signs of transplant shock. Although most plants recover, this can set them back or sometimes kill them.

To prevent transplant shock, you have to allow a brief period of adjustment before the plants are ready to go outside. This is usually referred to as “hardening off.” You can move strong seedlings onto a porch or protected area for 3-5 days so they can adjust to colder nights and less water before they go out into the garden. 

Best Garden Plants to Start Indoors

Seedlings of peppers and tomatoes with grown leaves in trays on the windowsill. Tomato seedlings have hairy, pale green stems with complex pinnate leaves that consist of green oval leaflets with coarsely serrated edges. Pepper seedlings have pale green, erect stems with large, heart-shaped, bright green leaves that taper to pointed tips.
Crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and cabbage are best sown indoors with further transplanting.

The best crops to start indoors are those with a long growing season and resilient roots. Commonly transplanted vegetables include:

  • Kale
  • Collards
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • All peppers
  • All tomatoes
  • Tomatillos
  • Eggplant
  • Artichokes
  • Cucumbers
  • Melons
  • Squash and pumpkins
  • Celery
  • Fennel
  • Head lettuce
  • Swiss chard

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, you don’t have to be on “team transplant” or “team direct seed.” The most successful farmers and gardeners combine both methods to grow the best vegetables possible. The key is to choose the ideal method for your crop and your garden.

If you are direct seeding, use tools like row cover and compost to create a better environment for emerging seedlings. If you are starting indoors, be sure that you take extra care to harden-off your plants and protect their roots during transplanting.

sowing seeds outdoors


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