Transplants (such as shown here in February) help get earlier harvests.
When is it better to direct sow a crop in the ground and when is it better to sow indoors and transplant later? Some crops grow better started one way or the other, sometimes the weather or the equipment you have will make the difference. I like using transplants, so I'll start with that.
Pros of transplanting
- You'll start seed in more ideal conditions in greenhouse: better growth, more fun!
- You can start earlier than outside, and so get earlier harvests.
- It is easier to care for new seedlings indoors (major weather events stay outdoors!)
- Transplants have more flexibility if the weather turns bad. Delay transplanting, crops still grow! (Move plants into bigger pots if needed.)
- You can get more successions of crops from a bed, fit more crops into the season.
- This means more good quality fresh produce for harvest.
- Plus, you can use the time windows for quick cover crops, if you don't want or need to plant more food crops.
- You'll save on seed costs, as you won't be thinning.
- At transplanting time, you can select the sturdiest plants, compost the rest, meaning you have the best chance of good yields.
- Transplanting works well with plastic mulch (for weed control).
- Transplanting works well with no-till cover crops. Mow the cover crop, transplant into it, and the dead mulch keeps the weeds away for 6-8 weeks (longer in cool, dry climates).
- Transplanting works well for crops where you grow lots of different varieties, such as tomatoes.
- Transplanting helps if spring is cold and/or wet.
Cons of transplanting
- Extending the season by starting earlier does mean more work. . .
- It takes extra time caring for the starts, as they won't get water if you don't provide it.
- Transplant shock can delay harvest - be sure to learn and practice good techniques.
- More attention is needed to watering new plants after transplanting, (compared to direct sowing) as some root damage is almost inevitable. (Plug flats and soil blocks minimize root damage.)
- You need a good greenhouse set-up if you plan to grow lots of transplants.
Carrots are only rarely transplanted, as direct sowing works much better. Photo by Kathryn Simmons
Pros of direct sowing
- Read the disadvantages of transplanting.
- Direct sowing is less work than transplanting.
- Direct sowing has lower costs than buying plants, if that is your other option.
- You'll have no need for a greenhouse and equipment.
- Direct sown plants have better drought tolerance – the roots grow without damage.
- Some crops don’t transplant easily: melons have fragile stems and roots for instance; carrots get distorted roots if transplanted.
- Some crops have millions of plants - you couldn't possibly transplant enough! (carrots)
Melons are tricky to transplant, although the earlier harvests may prompt you to try. This is Mayor Canary melon.
Cons of direct sowing
- Read the advantages of transplanting.
- Direct sowing uses more seed than growing transplants.
- Direct sowing uses more time thinning.
- Direct sown crops occupy the land longer than the same crop transplanted.
- Direct sown crops may be harder to get started in cold (or hot) conditions.
- It is hard to make direct sowing work with plastic or paper mulch, or with no-till cover crops.
Pam Dawling has worked at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia for more than 27 years, growing vegetables for 100 people on 3.5 acres and training many members in sustainable vegetable production. She is the author of Sustainable Market Farming and The Year-Round Hoophouse. Pam often presents workshops at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs and at sustainable agriculture conferences. She is a contributing editor with Growing for Market magazine, and a weekly blogger on SustainableMarketFarming.com. Read all of Pam’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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