Direct Sowing: It’s Trickier Than the Gurus Claim

Gardening books spend pages and pages explaining the fussy, delicate business of starting seeds indoors, but for some reason, all but abandon the beginning gardener to the winds of chance when it comes to directly sowing seeds in the garden:  “What, can’t you read the back of the seed packet?”

If you’ve never tried direct sowing, or worse, tried it, failed and not known why, “the back of the packet” explanation isn’t enough to tell you how to do it, what went wrong when you tried it, and what you might do the next time to have a better experience.  The sorry truth is that direct sowing is every bit as fussy and delicate as starting seeds indoors.  The main difference is getting mud on your shoes.

Soil Preparation

It is important that your soil preparation match the kind of crop you are trying to grow.  Well-cultivated soil, rich in organic matter is the best seed-starting medium there is.   I recommend cultivating your soil at least 12 inches deep, more if you are growing a truly magnificent root crop like daikon radish or giant beet.  If you plan to grow shallowly rooted crops like lettuces or spinach, you can be a little more modest in your soil preparation efforts.

After you’ve incorporated (roto-tilled/shovel-mixed, trowel-stirred or whatever method you choose) generous amounts of well-rotted compost into the area you plan to sow, rake the soil surface as smooth as you can manage.  The planting area should be free of debris such as leaves, stones, or chunks of hardwood mulch.  Chop or break apart any large soil lumps as well.  This will help ensure that your seeds maintain contact with the soil, without air pockets to dry them out.

Mark Your Row (or planting area).

Whether you plant in rows, or want to plant lettuces or flowers randomly, you have to find some means of marking the area where you plant.  Once seed is in the ground it is invisible.  Marking where you planted  your seeds will save you many, many, many migraines.  Don’t ask me how I know.

A tightly secured string makes a nice planting guide-wire.

A tightly secured string makes a nice planting guide-wire.

I like to mark my rows with a long piece of twine (I don’t plant in rows always).  Secure the twine, or cord, or… well… you could even use an old shoestring… where you plan to plant your seeds. If you plant your seeds in a straight line following the string, you will be able to distinguish between things you planted on purpose, and the weed seeds that will doubtlessly germinate right alongside your seeds.


When I don’t want to plant in rows, I sometimes use plastic garden netting if I have some leftover from an old project (you can get this at a hardware store).  The little squares are excellent guides for planting seeds in clearly marked locations.   You can also mark where you’ve planted seeds using simple visual cues. For example, when I sow the seeds of climbing plants like peas or cardinal climbing vine, I never mark rows because they are necessarily always planted along the fence they are going to grow on.

Planting Depth

If a beginning gardener is going to make an error with direct sowing, it is going to be in the area of “planting depth.”  Most commercial seed packets have instructions on the back that tell you how deeply and how far apart to plant your seeds.  Some packets don’t have this information at all.  If information on planting depth is not listed on your seed packet, do a web search to find out.

I am far more concerned with “planting depth” than I am with “distance apart” or “distance between rows.”  If you err with planting depth, the whole project is kaput.  Game Over.  If you err by planting things too closely together, you can fix it by thinning the seedlings so that there are fewer of them in the row.  If you don’t fix this, your vegetables will be small.  If you err by planting rows too far apart, the garden will punish you by making you weed a lot during the heat of the summer;  and you will learn never to make that error again.  If you err by planting rows too closely together, the garden will punish you with small root crops, disease-prone plants, and difficulty harvesting.  None of these situations will prevent you from enjoying your garden and the vegetables you grow.  In fact, it may be that all beginning gardeners will struggle with planting distances before working out a system that ends in consistent results.  Incorrect planting depth, on the other hand, is lethal, so that is the thing I want to address is some detail:

The rule of thumb is that seeds should be planted three times more deeply than their size.  For example, ideally, a gardener would plant a one-inch seed three inches below the soil’s surface.  It’s sort of a silly rule of thumb because many of the seeds we work with are smaller than the crumb of the soil you will be planting them in!  For that reason, planting depth is not an exact science.  Inexactness is partly why it is so easy for beginning gardeners (and some not-so-beginning-gardeners) to make a mistake and have a disappointing outcome.

By in large, vegetable seed packages give the same basic “types” of sowing instructions.  Let me make some planting suggestions based on the four most common types of seed planting instructions found on vegetable seed packets.

Sowing Instruction Type A: “Broadcast seed evenly on moist medium, do not cover.”

This instruction means that a seed must have sunlight in order to germinate.  Failure to follow this instruction will result in complete failure.  Kaput.  End of story.  Bye Bye.  See you in the grocer’s vegetable aisle.  Planting method: prepare the soil, mark your row or planting area, broadcast (sprinkle) your seed.  Water immediately after broadcasting.  Have a nice cup of tea.  All done.

Sowing Instruction Type B ; “Plant seeds 1/8 of an inch deep.”

Whenever I see this on a seed packet, I can’t help but snort and curl my lip.  What in the world?!  I’m sowing seeds, not a quilt!  Planting method: prepare the soil, mark your row or planting area, broadcast your seed.  Sprinkle soil over seeds until they are lightly covered.  The gesture of “sprinkling” here makes me think of how a cook might flour a baking pan.  Think about this layer of soil as primarily providing an “anchor” to help hold the seed in place.  Water immediately after sprinkling the soil.  Have a nice cup of tea.  All done.

Sowing Instruction Type C: “Plant seeds x/y inches deep.”

Here, X and Y represent numbers that result in fractions equal to 1/4 of an inch but less than 1 inch. Any seed needing to be planted ¼ inch deep or deeper needs to germinate in darkness.  To facilitate this, the gardener must open the soil (rather than “broadcast’ seed on the surface).

Unless you are growing vegetables in volume, I see no reason to use any sort of a mechanical seeding device to open the soil and sow seed.

The human hand is a fabulous tool.  Open the earth with a slicing motion using the knife-edge of your open hand.

The human hand is a fabulous tool. Open the earth with a slicing motion using the knife-edge of your open hand.

You can use your hand to plant seeds to an accurate depth the same way a good cook uses the palm of his or her hand to measure minute amounts of salt or pepper.  Your hand has regular dimensions; and in very little time, and with a little attention, you can come to recognize ¼ inch, ½ inch, ¾ inch, 1 inch, 2 inches (etc.) by looking at your fingers and hands.  If you prefer not to use your hand,  you can open the soil using just about any old thing: a hoe, a ruler (there’s a good notion!), the handle of a spade, or even an old stick if you like (consider marking your stick at 1 inch to help as a rough measurement of soil depth.  Convenient and cheap!).

This is important: “plant seed ½ inch deep” does not mean open a ½ inch deep row in the soil surface.  The real purpose of opening up a row in the earth is to encourage water to accumulate around your seed.  That will increase the likelihood that your seed will remain evenly moist while it is in the ground.  The row you open can be/will be many times deeper than the seed’s actual planting depth.  Planting method: Mark your row.  Run your edged tool (the knife edge of your hand) through the soil along the marker several times until the edges of the opening are stable (the sides don’t keep caving in).  Remember, this opening is going to be deeper than the seed’s planting depth by as much as 2 to 3 inches.

Sow seeds two seeds at the distance intervals suggested on the back of the seed packet.  This will save you time thinning and cost in seed.

Sow two or three seeds at a time, approximating the recommended spacing on the seed packet.  Sowing a few seeds at a time will save you time thinning them later, and will also reduce your seed costs.

Place your seeds (don’t broadcast them) in the opening, approximating the spacing recommended on the seed packet.  If you plant too many or put them too closely together, it isn’t a crisis.  You can always thin them out later.

Plants seeds by back-filling the opening with soil to the suggested planting depth.  This is not an exact science.

Plants seeds by back-filling the opening with soil to the suggested planting depth. This is not an exact science.

Then cover the seeds with some of the displaced soil that has built up along the soil opening.  Cover the seeds to the recommended depth, approximately.  Water the covered seeds immediately.  Have a nice cup of tea.  All done.

PS: Do not spend a lot of energy worrying about the accuracy of the seed depth with this method.  Seeds that prefer this planting depth have two requirements – darkness and coolness.  If your ¼ inch of soil swells to ½ an inch in some places, or vice versa, the seed’s basic requirements will still have been met, and you will still get a reasonably satisfactory rate of germination.

Sowing Instruction Type D: “Sow seeds at a depth of one-inch (or more)”

Seeds that must be planted at a depth of one inch or more are particularly easy to deal with.  They tend to be larger and require a bit more moisture for the seedling to break free of the seed coat.  Deep planting facilitates this.  Planting method: prepare your soil.  Mark your row.  If you have a lot of seeds and need to cover a lot of ground, use the same method for Sowing Instruction C, except open a bigger trench and do it with a gardening tool rather than with your hand.  That will save time.  If you don’t have a lot of seeds to get in the ground (I mean, how many pumpkin plants do you REALLY need?) use the ancient “digging stick” method: use your handy dandy, trusty, pre-measured forefinger to stab a hole in the ground to the required depth.  Drop your seed in the hole, then close it with a quick push and a pat on the soil.  Water immediately.  Presto.  Time for tea.  You got her done.

Moisture Control

With direct sowing, moisture control is a particularly harsh mistress. Once the seed is in the ground gardeners are pinned down by the necessity to keep them evenly moist, 24/7 until they poke their little heads above the surface.

Dill sprouts struggling up through dessicated rain-compacted soil.  I will have to cultivate between the rows before hand-watering this crop to reinvigorate it.

Dill sprouts struggling up through dessicated rain-compacted soil. I will have to cultivate between the rows before hand-watering this crop to reinvigorate it.

And unlike seeds started indoors, the outdoor soil surface is entirely at the mercy of forces beyond the gardener’s control: the sun, the wind, the humidity, the dew point, pouring rain… all of these are going to conspire to dry up, wash away, or drown out what you’ve labored so hard to get in the ground.

How often every gardener needs to water their seed-bed is hard to say, because it depends  upon the type of soil you have, the lay of your land, the configuration of the seed-bed, and local weather conditions.  Sitting in America’s mid-western tornado alley, I water — at minimum — once per day every day that there is no precipitation, sometimes twice depending on the weather conditions. Put it this way: if you lay your hand on the soil surface and it is dry and crumbly, water.  Don’t just “spritz” some water around until the soil surface is darkened. The rule for watering is water deeply less frequently rather than frequently and shallowly.  This is a good rule to hold to for all plants at all times in all locations.

Now that you’ve sown your seeds in the ground, it is a waiting game… a waiting game that requires you to pay constant attention to soil moisture.  But guess what?  You’ve got things to do, mountains to climb, appointments to keep, kids to ferry, and sometimes you’ve even got to talk to your husband.  Seeds are low on the totem pole of family and work related obligations.  How can you obey this harsh mistress?

Put an inexpensive garden timer on your outdoor spigot, run a hose to your seed-bed, put a lawn sprinkler nearby, and forget about your seeds for days at a time.  Alternatively, you can attach the timer to the spigot, run a regular hose to your seed -bed, and lay a soaker hose.  Soaker hoses are porous hoses through which water seeps.  This is a particularly excellent watering method for home gardeners because soaker hoses are relatively inexpensive, all-weather, place water directly on the roots of your plants, reduce evaporation, keep the leaves of your plants dry so that they don’t catch diseases…  I only use lawn sprinklers when my soaker hoses have not yet been laid for the season.  Once my soaker hoses are down, I never spray water up into the air as a method of getting it to soak deep into the earth.

The Waiting Game:

It's spinach!!  Notice the spacing between each pair of sprouts?  I have planted two seeds ever two inches.  As the sprouts grow, I will thin them to 1 per two inches, and later, 1 per four inches.

It’s spinach!! Notice the spacing between each pair of sprouts? I have planted two seeds ever two inches. As the sprouts grow, I will thin them to 1 per two inches, and later, 1 per four inches.

This waiting game is painful.  Because you honestly don’t know, the honest gardener never honestly knows whether or not their seeds are going to do what they are supposed to.  A lot of things can happen to a seed after it disappears into the ground.  A downpour that momentarily leaves large puddles in your seed-bed could flush the seeds out of the garden.  Ask me how I know.  A stray cat could decide to use your seed-bed for a litter box and dig up all your seeds.  Ask me how I know.  Your kid (or your neighbor’s kids) could decide to play mud pies in your seed-bed.  Ask me how I know.  Your husband could decide to “help you” and weed your seedlings clean out of the bed before you even knew they sprouted.  Ask me how I know.

Keep in mind that each type of seed germinates within a specific amount of time.  Some need to stay as many as three weeks in the ground before they poke their teeny heads up out of the soil.  It is a good idea to mark the date that you planted your seeds on a calendar, and to note the ‘days to germination’ information you’ll find on the back of the seed packet.  Otherwise, you will begin to worry that your seeds aren’t “doing anything.”  They are doing something.  But they are doing it underground at a rate that is determined by weather and soil conditions that are completely beyond your control.  All you can do is keep the seed-bed watered, do rain dances every so often, and wait for nature to take its course.

To Be Continued?

Phew!  This blog post turned out to be longer than I had anticipated… but I have so much more to talk about!  How about if I close here, then blog a second post on what to do with your seeds once they sprout?  That way you can go out to the garden Right Now and try what I’ve suggested.  It’s a truism that gardening is one of the things you’ve got to quit reading about and actually do if you are to make it work.   More in my next installment.  Peace and happy gardening!


2 thoughts on “Direct Sowing: It’s Trickier Than the Gurus Claim

  1. JanMont says:

    What a great post! Your clarity is outstanding.

  2. Sho'Nuff says:

    That is very high praise, indeed. I hope it will prove useful!

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