Direct-Sow Savvy

by Erin Enouen

wild arugula

In our neck of the woods, we're just passing our usual last-frost date right about now, which means we'll soon begin to set out the tender seedlings we've been nursing through this cool and damp spring.

(Need some seedlings? We're selling loads of seedlings from interesting varieties at our 6th Annual Seedling Sale at the Catskill Native Nursery this weekend! Click here for details!)

But this moment of the calendar also marks the all-clear for sowing seeds of tender crops directly into your garden beds. In fact, during this window of the spring when frost is past but the evenings are still cool, you can successfully sow seeds of nearly any crop directly in your garden—even seeds of crops that are typically started indoors.

From usual direct-sown crops such as spinachpeaslettucebeans, and corn to surprises like parsleybasilkaletomatillos, and even tomatoes—plus lots of flowers, like zinniassunflowersnasturtiums, and bachelor buttons—nearly any crop sown directly right now will succeed.

Yes, transplanting seedlings generally results in earlier and larger harvests. But direct sowing is easier, cheaper, and is much more efficient for large plantings. It also allows your crops to avoid the stress of transplant shock.

Many gardeners approach direct sowing with a bit of fear. Previous attempts have taught them—rightly—that there is less under your control when you direct sow. Still, more always go right than goes wrong, and humanity's continued existence is a testament to this: when grown commercially, nearly all staple crops and a majority of vegetables are sown directly in the ground.

Read our ten tips below to approach your next round of garden sowing with the confidence and savvy of a seasoned pro.

10 Steps to Direct-Sow Success

  1. Do a thorough, pre-emptive weeding. Direct sown crops produce tiny seedlings that need careful attention to flourish. Among their greatest needs is to be free from crowding by weeds. This is easily accomplished in the greenhouse, where seedlings can be started in a weed-free potting soil. But when direct sowing crops, gardeners must pay careful attention to weeds during the seedling's early days. Get a head start by doing a thorough, pre-emptive weeding before sowing. If gardening in a new or neglected patch, consider sheet mulching or tilling and raking multiple times to kill lurking weeds.
  2. Amend the soil thoroughly. It's much easier to create a fertile bed for your plants before planting seeds than after they have emerged. An unplanted bed can quickly be hoed and raked multiple times to incorporate a big pile of compost; trying to do a thorough job of this once the seedlings are up is nearly impossible. So don't jump the gun: add compost, lime, soybean or alfalfa meal, rock phosphate, kelp, or any complete organic fertilizer before planting. Many plants benefit from later side-dressings as well, but they won't make up for the first-round big boost to initial fertility accomplished by thoroughly incorporating amendments. Note: ideally, allow the bed to sit for 3-7 days between preparation and sowing. This will allow you to give it one good hoeing just before sowing—dispensing with the flush of weeds that comes with turning over the soil—and will allow the amendments to mellow a bit, which improves germination.
  3. Create furrows of the proper depth. Most seeds germinate and take root best when sowed at a depth of approximately 2-3 times their width. (For mid-summer direct sowings, you can increase this a bit if it's dry and hot, as the moisture remains lower in the soil.) Figure out the proper spacing for the variety you are planting, then use a stick, a tool handle, or a 2x2 to press clean furrows into a well-prepared (and therefore loose and friable) garden bed. Space these furrows apart from each other at the spacing recommended for the variety you are sowing. Press the implement into the soil until it reaches the proper depth: for small seeds like arugula and lettuce, this will be an extremely shallow furrow (1/4" or so), while for beans or peas the furrow will be a good 3/4" to 1" deep. Try your best to keep the furrow flat and even; fill in any divets or smooth out any high spots to accomplish this.
  4. Plan for thinnings when possible. Before actually sowing seed, consider if the crop you are sowing can be harvested young for table use. If so, consider sowing more thickly than the plants ultimately need to be spaced in order to harvest tender young thinnings early. This works well for any crop harvested for their leaves, such as spinach, lettuce, arugula, parsley, cilantro, kale, collards, and all Asian Greens. Just remember to thin the plants promptly at the 3-4" tall stage so that the plants you are growing for full maturity are not stressed by overcrowding as they grow.
  5. Sow the seed. Once you've done all of the above, sowing the seed is easy! Depending on the seed size, either sprinkle or drop the seed at regular spacing into the bottom of your furrow. Don't be too stingy with the seed—but don't be too loose, either. Ideally you'd like an evenly spaced line of seeds in the furrow at a spacing that is twice as close as recommended (if thinning) or just about what is recommended (if not thinning). It's best to oversow certain crops—most notably spinach, some herbs, and any older seeds you are using—to make up for naturally low or variable germination rates.
  6. Keep it firm! One mistake often made by new gardeners is to try to keep the soil around the seeds extremely loose. While in general a loose soil is a sign of healthy tilth, most seeds germinate best when they have somewhat firm soil surrounding them. The reason is that firm soil does a better job of pulling moisture from below and transmitting it to the seed, while loose soil dries out quickly under the sun's rays. So, once you've sown your seeds in the furrow, brush soil on top of them and press the soil--either with your open palms or with the flat side of a furrow-making stick--so that it is snug. This isn't a strength test: save your muscles for turning compost. Just a gentle "tucking in" is all it takes to keep the seeds in a good, well-wrapped state for healthiest germination.
  7. Water in, then walk away. Always water in your seeds after planting, and continue watering regularly until you see emergence. Make your waterings thorough in order to saturate the soil. Then—unless you have extraordinarily sandy soil—don't water again for 48 hours. Seeds need a combination of moisture and warmth to germinate, and especially during the first half of spring the heat can be in short supply. Watering too frequently keeps the soil even cooler, so restrain yourself.
  8. Weed and thin promptly during first month. While weeds can inhibit the growth and productivity of all plants, tiny seedlings can be stopped completely in their tracks by weed competition. If you know you're a lazy weeder, make a resolution with yourself to invest all your weeding energy up front. Let the ripening peppers and tomatoes and squash be weed-choked, but be darn sure to keep your young spinach, peas, and beets clear of lambsquarter, spiky amaranth, and horse nettle. A sharp hoe can get the job done quickly, while a thick layer of mulch spread open to allow seedling emergence can keep weeds smothered. However you do it, get it done.
  9. Re-sow promptly if necessary. Seeds germinating in the open garden face many perils not faced by seeds germinating in the greenhouse: heavy soils that stay cold and semi-compacted; larval pests that eat the seedling before or soon after it emerges; rapid dessication from spring sun and wind. Stay attentive! If you see disappearing seedlings, chewed up cotyledons, or withering leaves, act fast and re-sow—and, if possible, take steps to resolve the problem that caused your crop loss in the first place.
  10. Consider using row cover. Row cover is a cheap miracle fabric for the garden. It is simply a thin sheet of spun-bound polyester, but it works magic in the garden in countless ways. By applying a layer of row cover over your just-sown seeds, you ensure steady moisture until germination and protection from land- and air-traveling insects such as flea beetles, which can so rapidly decimate young seedlings. We sell it by the foot, in 83" and 10' widths.

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