Almost any vegetable can be started in the ground, but the harvest will be delayed several weeks compared to seeds started indoors and planted in the ground as soon as the weather is warm enough. Root crops should be sown where they are to grow because it’s difficult to transplant them without breaking off the tiny tap root, which deforms the final harvest.
It’s traditional to plant larger seeds—peas, beans and corn—directly in the ground. Because of their size, they contain produce robust seedlings that don’t need as much protection.
Before planting, rake smooth the prepared soil where you plan to sow the seeds.
Vegetables can be broadcast over seed beds, planted in small groups (called hills), or planted in straight rows (called drills). See for a discussion of these methods.
For planting depths, follow the instructions on the seed packet or the table at . As a rule of thumb, sow the seeds at a depth that is about three times the seed’s diameter (not its length). Planting depth doesn’t need to be exact. Most seeds germinate and turn into plants no matter what you do. If you have trouble, see .
A good system is to make the planting hole or furrow twice the depth at which the seed is to be planted. Then, after the seed is placed in the ground, half-fill the furrow with soil or sand. As the seedlings grow, wind and water eventually fill the furrows with soil, and the plants have a deeper, firmer footing than if they had been planted closer to the surface.
Planting Larger Seeds
With your planting plan at hand, measure off the rows and the paths and mark the measurements with rocks or sticks. To make a straight row, tie string between two stakes at either end of the planting row or lay a long board on the ground.
Next, dig a planting furrow or drill. Position the corner of a hoe under the string at the depth you intend to plant the seeds. Alternatively, use a board as a straight-edge and drag the hoe along it. Then drag the hoe the length of the row. It will pull up a ridge of soil next to the drill.
When you reach the far end, turn and walk back up the row, dropping seeds into the furrow at the distances specified. Because not all seeds germinate, they are usually planted about twice as close as the plants should be spaced, then thinned later to the final spacing. A board or a strip of cardboard marked with notches at measured distances takes the guesswork out of spacing. But your eye does a good enough job, too.
Now go back along the row in the opposite direction, drawing the little ridge of soil back over the seeds with a garden rake. Come back one more time, gently but firmly tamping the soil over the seeds with the rake. The purpose of this firming is to compress the soil under the seed slightly to help capillary action bring moisture to it from below. Water evaporates from the surface during the day and is replenished at night if the soil is compressed. You can see this effect most easily in a footprint in soft soil in the morning; the footprint will be damp while the loose soil around it remains dry.
When all the seeds have been planted in the row, jab a long stick through the seed packet and press the stick into the earth at the end of the row. It’s surprisingly easy to forget what you planted where. Besides, there is satisfaction is the gesture—a sense of completeness. Mark the date in your garden calendar or on your planting plan so you know when to expect seedlings—and a finished crop. This lets you plan when to harvest this crop and plant the next one.
When you’ve finished planting for the day, sprinkle the rows with water. Use a gentle stream that won’t wash away the seeds. In the days ahead, keep the bed evenly moist until the seeds sprout and show second and third pairs of leaves. Seedlings are especially susceptible to drying out just after they germinate; for a few days their roots are tiny and they have no reserves. Take particular pains that the soil stays moist during this period.
To plant seeds in hills, place the seed where you want to plant it and push it into the soil with your finger; use a knuckle as a depth gauge. Press the soil next to the hole to pinch the hole shut over the seed.
Planting Smaller Seeds
Make a drill by pressing the corner of a board into the soil about 1/2 inch deep. Sprinkle the seeds along the drill carefully; it’s easy to sow tiny seeds too close together. If you have trouble sowing them thinly enough, mix the seed with some sand and sow that. Cover the seed with 1/4 inch of sand; the sand makes a neat line to show where the row is, won’t crust over the seed, and doesn’t wash in heavy rain as easily as soil.
It isn’t necessary to press the soil down because you did that when you pressed the corner of the board to make the drill.
To broadcast seeds, scatter them evenly over the area to be planted, press them into the soil with the flat of a board, then sift 1/4 inch of sand, soil or compost over them.
Water the seeds very gently; small seed washes around easily and can be exposed or buried too deeply.
During hot, dry weather, shade the newly-planted row until the seedlings come up. You can do this by laying a board, burlap, or some loose straw on the rows. Check frequently for germination and remove the cover as soon as seedlings appear; they etiolate, or stretch for light, very quickly if they germinate in the dark. Elevating a board on a couple of bricks shades them but allows them a little light if you are late in removing the board.
If heavy rains threaten before the seeds germinate, cover the rows to prevent the seeds from washing out.
Thin plants without mercy as they become crowded, removing the weakest plants with a pair of scissors (pulling them out disturbs the roots of the remaining plants). Thin to the recommended spacing for your variety; you will find the recommended spacing on the back of the seed packet or in the seed catalog you ordered from.
Some seedlings are delicious, especially young lettuces and beet greens. Harvest half-grown onion sets as scallions.