Direct Sowing vs. Seedling Trays: Which Is Better?


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Gardening in a small space is challenging because the best way to ensure a great harvest is to have every square foot packed with vegetables. This is sometimes difficult to achieve because, despite our best intentions, plants don’t always get the best start that we’d like. When it comes to direct sowing vs. sowing seeds in seed starting trays, I experimented with both, and my preferred method is seed starting trays. However, they both have an important role in the garden.

Direct sowing is great for plants that hate root disturbance, but the downside is uneven germination. Sowing seeds in cells is a great way to control space, but the seedlings will need more care. Direct sown seedlings are better established while transplants take a while to adapt.

Every gardener will have his/her preferred method, and there’s no right or wrong way of doing things. You will use both direct seeding and seedling trays in the garden, and depending on the climate, humidity, and pests in your area, one method will work better than the other. Here are the pros and cons of both of these techniques:

The Pros and Cons of Direct Sowing

PROS:

  •  Direct sowing takes less work. You tie a string, make a shallow trench in the soil and sprinkle the seeds in. Cover the soil loosely, water, and then let nature do its thing.
  •  The plants are better acclimated.
  •  There’s no need to harden off the seedlings.
  •  Directly sown seedlings generally need less water.
  •  Directly sown plants sometimes grow faster than seedlings grown in trays because they are more established.

CONS:

  •  When direct sowing seeds, you need excellent topsoil and good humidity. Otherwise, there’s a high chance that seedlings won’t germinate.17.5
  •  Patchy germination is a real issue with direct seeding, leaving you with empty spots throughout your garden.
  •  Some areas of direct seeding will require a lot of thinning as the seedlings grow too thick in one place and too sparse in another.
  •  Birds and rodents can eat seeds before they even germinate – like peas and beans, while slugs, snails, and flea beetles love to feast on very young seedlings.
  •  You either sow seeds in a row or randomly sprinkle them – there’s no precision about what plant goes where.
  •  You can only sow seeds directly in the ground after the soil has warmed up in spring.

Regardless of the pros and cons, some plants will always prefer direct sowing, especially the ones who hate root disturbance, like carrots. Lettuce for leaves and certain leafy greens are best sown directly when using the “cut-and-come-again” method to harvest them. Here are some examples of vegetables you can sow direct:

  • Carrots
  • Parsley
  • Potatoes
  • Lettuce for leaves 
  • Arugula
  •  Mustard greens
  •  Mizuna
  •  Endives
  •  Onion sets
  •  Radishes

The Pros and Cons of starting seeds in Seedling Trays

PROS:

  •  You can get an early harvest by starting seeds indoors or in a greenhouse, thus extending your season.
  •  You can plant the seedlings outside and grow vegetables a lot faster than you would if you used the direct seeding method. However, you need to protect the transplants with fleece covers while the weather is still too cold.
  •  Seedling trays give you the flexibility to select where to plant your seedlings, decide on spacing, and maximize your yield.
  •  You can fill any empty spot in your garden with leftover seedlings.
  •  Multi-sowing is an excellent way to get more harvest out of a small garden: sow 3-5 seeds and plant them as a clump. You can use multi-sowing with plants like onions, leeks, beetroot, and radishes.
  •  Seed starting trays allow you to select the strongest seedlings when transplanting them outside.
  •  You have complete control over your harvest: you decide what goes where and when.

CONS:

  •  Sowing seeds in seedling trays produces delicate seedlings that need constant care to keep them in the perfect conditions of light and humidity.
  •  Seedlings grown in trays can suffer from fungal disease: damping off from too much water and damp soil. Their stems thin at the base, and shortly after, they die.
  •  Too much sun and poor ventilation in the greenhouse or inside the cold frame will also kill your seedlings.
  •  It can be expensive to set up a germination station: you’ll need grow lights and maybe a seedling heat mat, or you’ll need to invest in a greenhouse or polytunnel. Cold frames can work too, but at the very least, you’ll have to buy some seedling trays and quality seed starting mix and compost.
  •  Seedlings grown under protection need to be hardened off gradually, exposed to the wind, sun, and cold, and then brought back under protection, which is also time-consuming.
  •  When transplanted, seedlings grown inside trays will suffer from transplant shock, and it will take them days to recover. However, if the seedling is healthy, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Sowing seeds in seedling trays may appear like a lot of hard work, but once you transplant them and your garden beds are suddenly filled with baby plants, it’s a very satisfying feeling.

Without indirect sowing, you couldn’t even grow heat-loving plants like tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, and chilies in a colder climate. The season would be too short. So it’s best to start them in containers, indoors, sometimes as early as February.

Most plants sown in seedling trays take 3 to 4 weeks to mature. Periodically check the roots to see if the seedlings have any soil left inside the cells. Ideally, you would want to plant younger seedlings, as they do better than seedlings that have been in the trays for too long and ran out of nutrients. 

Here are some examples of vegetables that do very well when sown in trays and containers:

  •  Peas
  •  Broad beans
  •  Onions (multi sown)
  •  Leeks (multi sown)
  •  Beetroot (multi sown)
  •  Radishes (multi sown)
  •  Beans
  •  Zucchini
  •  Squash
  •  Cucumbers
  •  Tomatoes
  •  Peppers
  •  Aubergines
  •  Chilies
  •  Kohlrabi
  •  Cabbages
  •  Kale
  •  Lettuce for heads

Tips and tricks for seedling tray sowing

Because mice and other rodents can attack your peas and beans seeds, it’s a good idea to sow them in seedling trays or some sort of pots. But because these plants hate having their roots disturbed, there are some tricks you can apply. 

For peas, try sowing them inside a rain gutter filled with compost, and hang the gutter high above the ground. When the seedlings are large enough, slide the contents of the gutter inside the soil. The mice will no longer find larger seedlings enticing.

Beans also hate having their delicate roots disturbed, so instead of transplanting them from a plastic container, sow the beans inside biodegradable containers, such as toilet paper rolls. Anything narrow and tall is perfect for beans. 

Zucchinis, squashes, and cucumbers grow extremely fast and produce big seedlings – start with a large enough container, and pot them on if they’re not ready to go in the ground. The same goes for tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, and chilies.

Lettuce for heads is a little tricky to grow in seedling trays, as it requires that you first sow the seeds inside a shallow container. Once they’ve formed their first leaves, you prick them out and move them to individual cells. It’s a lot of work, but from one small tray, you can get enough lettuce heads to fill your entire garden and feed you for months to come.

Conclusion

If you are tight on space, I recommend you predominantly start your seeds in seedling trays. You will have a lot more control over the timing of when your plants go in. You will be able to master succession planting and get two, even three harvests out of one single bed from spring to late autumn. 

Succession planting and packing your garden with vegetables wouldn’t be possible without having seedlings available all year long. However, don’t ignore direct sowing wherever you can. It’s just the way to go for some plants, while as for others, it’s just more convenient.

Label your rows, so you know what you’ve sown, and stay on top of watering. Postpone weeding until your seedlings get larger so that you don’t accidentally pull them out. 

If you’re new at this, don’t worry, you’ll figure it out. Gardening should be fun, first and foremost! So try out both methods and stay positive. 

Check out these must-have gardening products

You don’t need much to start gardening, but some tools and products will make a difference in how comfortable and effective gardening can be for you. Here are my favorites:

  • Garden Trowel. A good garden trowel will last you many years. I love how sturdy this hand trowel from WOLF-Garten is, the metal doesn’t bend and it has a nice grip.
  • Trimming Scissors. I use them for delicate pruning and harvesting all summer long, and they’re super handy. These Teflon Trimming Scissors are extra nice because they don’t rust as easily.
  • Dutch Hoe. Dutch hoes may seem old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like a quick sweep through the topsoil to get rid of small weeds – no bending required. I love WOLF-Garten’s selection: this dutch hoe coupled with their universal handle.
  • Grow Lights. These grow lights from Mars Hydro are super strong, yet dimmable, so they fit every stage of growth. They don’t put out too much heat and are very economical.
  • Seedling Trays. There’s an art to choosing the best size for seedling trays so that it holds the perfect amount of water and gives the roots enough room to grow. These germination plugs are perfect when coupled with 1020 bottom trays
  • Liquid Fertilizer. You’ll need to feed your plants from the seedling stage, all the way to fruiting. This organic fish & seaweed blend is a very versatile option. Use it half-strength for young plants and full-strength for established plants.

Browse our list of tools, fertilizers & pesticides, indoor growing products and seed shop recommendations – we hope you find our selection useful and it saves you some time!

Adriana Sim

Hi, I'm Adriana Sim, owner of Tiny Garden Habit. I practice my green thumb in beautiful Transylvania, Romania, zone 6b. While my garden is not quite tiny, it's definitely compact and super-productive. You can grow a lot of food in a small space, and it's my mission to teach you how!

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