Planting Seeds: How to Pre-Sprout, Direct Sow, and Start Indoors 6

When starting your garden, you’ll have two options: Planting seeds or transplanting seedlings. There are pros and cons for each, and I suspect you’ll find that most gardeners do a little bit of both. If you opt to start with seedlings for some (or all) of your planting needs, you have two options: Pick them up at the nursery or start them yourself from seeds.

If you're planting a garden, you'll need to decide if you're planting seeds or seedlings. Here are several methods for planting seeds to try.

Benefits of planting seeds

  • There are so many more varieties to choose from than the standard nursery fare.
  • You can get started while it’s still too cold outside to do other gardening projects.
  • It’s less expensive.
  • You can use seeds saved from last year’s garden, as long as they are an open-pollinated variety.

Benefits of starting with seedlings

  • Starting with small plants can help avoid trouble with pests.
  • Seedlings will often produce sooner than seeds planted at the same time.
  • They’re visible – you’ll know right where they are in the garden.
  • If you buy seedlings at the nursery, someone else has done some of the work for you.

If you're planting a garden, you'll need to decide if you're planting seeds or seedlings. Here are several methods for planting seeds to try.

Pre-sprouting seeds

If you’ve ever planted an envelope full of seeds in soil only to have just a few sprouts emerge, you’ll appreciate the idea of pre-sprouting seeds. With pre-sprouting, you can see in advance which seeds are viable. This is an especially valuable tool if you’ve got old seeds from past seasons. By pre-sprouting, you can see which ones will actually grow in the garden, rather than planting row upon row of seeds that will disappoint.

If you're planting a garden, you'll need to decide if you're planting seeds or seedlings. Here are several methods for planting seeds to try.

How to pre-sprout seeds

There are a couple of different ways to do it, but the general idea is to keep seeds moist and warm for a few days so they have a chance to sprout. I’ve experimented with using paper towels, newspaper, and old t-shirts for pre-sprouting seeds. Bar none, I find the t-shirts to work the best since they retain moisture so well.

Soak sections cut from old cotton t-shirts in water. Sprinkle seeds onto the fabric’s surface and fold fabric in half. Roll up and secure. (I used masking tape.) Check daily to make sure the cloth is still moist. (Be sure it’s not oversaturated; this will cause the seeds to rot.) I kept mine in a recycled plastic strawberry container to help retain moisture. As soon as you see the seeds begin to send out sprouts, carefully lift each one and plant in a soil-filled pot. The tip of a pencil or a knife can work well for moving sprouted seeds. Don’t allow the sprouted seeds to linger at this stage, or they’ll send little roots into the fabric, making it difficult to move them.

If you're planting a garden, you'll need to decide if you're planting seeds or seedlings. Here are several methods for planting seeds to try.

Planting seeds indoors or in a greenhouse

Why plant seeds in pots? There are a couple of reasons.

First, some seeds are just kind of hard to plant directly in the garden. I put tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant in this category. The tender, tiny sprouts tend to be more susceptible to pests when they sprout right in the garden and there’s more loss when they’re planted directly, I find.

I like to set seedlings for these vegetables out in the garden. I could buy those seedlings, or I can start my own. (For years I bought tomato seedlings — it’s what my mom did. Then I tried sprouting my own and it turns out, tomatoes are really easy to sprout.)

Secondly, and probably more importantly, planting seeds indoors allows gardeners to beat the seasons. With a little light and warmth, you can start seeds indoors even when there’s snow on the ground. As soon as it’s warm enough outside, you’ll have seedlings to plant out.

Planting seeds indoors requires a fair amount of light and a warm place to germinate. I finally invested in several heated seed mats and an LED light for my seed starting area and I’ve been much more successful with germination this year.

How to plant seeds indoors

Start with a good potting soil. I’ve used bagged potting mix and I’ve mixed peat moss with worm castings. There are special seed starting mixes, but I’m not convinced that they’re necessary. Fill your containers with potting soil to within 1″ of the top. (Or use soil blocks.) Seed packets include planting directions and will note the planting depth suggested for each type of seed.

A good general rule is to plant a seed twice the depth of its size.

Large seeds like squash and beans will be planted deeper than smaller seeds. Other seeds—tomato, pepper, eggplant—are surface sown or just barely covered with soil. Set a seed or two into the appropriately sized planting hole, cover it with soil, and water it.

If you're planting a garden, you'll need to decide if you're planting seeds or seedlings. Here are several methods for planting seeds to try.

You can also plant multiple seeds in a container. I’ll do this if I’m unsure about the viability of my seeds. Once they sprout, the seedlings will need to be carefully separated and planted into individual pots until time to plant them in the garden.

Place your containers in a warm place (or on a heat mat) that gets plenty of light and wait for the seeds to sprout. Once sprouted, keep the soil moist and sing to them while you await your last frost date. Need more detail? Read more about how to plant a seed here.

Direct Sowing

Generally speaking, the seeds that do well sown directly in the garden are large seeds, like those of squash, peas, and beans. Maybe it’s my own bias, but I just feel that planting seeds for these veggies leads to sturdy seedlings quickly enough that they can hang tough in the garden. Root crops like radishes, beets, turnips, and carrots are also good for direct sowing.

Some seeds simply dislike being transplanted, so you’ll want to direct sow those. Corn, beans, carrots, peas, and radishes fall in this category.

The steps for actually planting seeds in the garden mimic those for planting in containers — you just do it directly in your garden soil.

You can plant your seeds in rows, which has been the garden standard for years, or you can broadcast your seeds.

To plant in rows: 

Make a furrow for the seeds at the appropriate depth. Sow seeds spaced evenly at the distance suggested on the seed packet. You’ll be able to manually place large seeds. Smaller seeds are a little harder to get exact, and that’s okay. If you notice that the sprouts are too thick anywhere, you can thin out once the seedlings have two true sets of leaves.

To broadcast: 

Small seeds do well with this method. Determine the area that you’ll be planting. Rake to loosen the soil surface, then scatter seeds as evenly as possible. Lightly rake again, then spread a thin layer of sifted compost over the area.


Use a fine mist to moisten the newly planted area. You’ll need to maintain that moisture until seedlings sprout; on hot days, you may need to water more than once.

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6 thoughts on “Planting Seeds: How to Pre-Sprout, Direct Sow, and Start Indoors

  • Terry

    Love your site! But I DO have a question for you:. How do you transplant the seedings that are leggy? a lot of mine are very leggy, and the weather is still too cold to plant them. I know you can plant tomatoes deeper, but what about other kinds? I have broccoli, cabbage, melons, squash, greens, etc?

    Thank you for your time…

    Sincerely, Terry

    • Kris Bordessa Post author

      Aloha e, Terry. *Ideally, you’ll avoid leggy seedlings because they just don’t transplant well. (They probably need more light.) The straight answer to your question though: I don’t know. When I have plants like this I tend to experiment, planting some deep, some just to soil level. Planting deep is fine for tomatoes, but the others just may be “stunted.”

  • Candi

    Great information – I agree…. between direct sowing and starting my own seeds indoors I can save lots of money.

    I think more people would start their own seeds if they knew how easy and fun it can be.

  • Debbie

    I wish there was a way to print the article to keep as a reference, rather than printing 14 pages with all the advertisements.
    You always have some good articles that I’d like to print, for my reference.

    • Kris Bordessa Post author

      You’re the second or third person to ask about this this week, so I just added a print option. It’s at the top of each post in the “share” bar. I very rarely print things from the internet, so the idea of having that as an option just wasn’t on my radar. Thanks for being in touch about it!

  • Jessica

    I love starting seeds indoors. It’s so nice to sew new growth in springtime after a long and cold winter. This is a very informative post!