ASK MARTHA: Seed Starting - Part Two Outdoors

Helpful hints for starting seeds in the garden.

Question: What are the steps for successful seed planting outdoors? 

Martha: By the time the last frosts are passing, and the soil has thawed, every gardener is impatient to be outdoors, especially me! That’s when we can finally focus on the seed sowing you can do in the garden, employing the same techniques for planting directly into flower beds and vegetable patches that have proven successful in my garden 

Long before there were fluorescent lights or windowsills in heated rooms, there were gardens, and the vegetables, herbs, and flowers in those ancestral plots were all “direct sown”. That is, the seeds were planted directly into the ground. This worked centuries ago, and it works just as well today. Poppies, peas, beans, and nasturtiums are only a few of the plants whose roots are easily damaged during transplanting, and which usually grow better if directly sown. In addition, there is a host of other plants whose seeds may be started equally well outdoors. You can find this information on the back of seed packets as well as online as you research the seeds you want to plant. 


Timing your seed planting can be a bit tricky when you direct sow. Besides scheduling around the average dates of their last and first frosts, the gardener who direct sows has to consult the weather as well. If spring is slow to arrive, and the weather stays frosty after it would normally have begun to warm, you should delay sowing—even if the calendar shows the correct number of weeks left before the last frost. Likewise, a rainy spell may leave the soil too soggy to be dug, forcing you to wait for the damp ground to drain. 


This phrase is commonly used to describe an early spring sowing. In very early spring, your garden soil may still be frozen and therefore impossible to dig or cultivate (to “work”). And right after it has thawed, the soil is likely to be so wet that any cultivation will compact it into muck. But once the soil has thawed and dried—if you squeeze a ball of it in your hand, it should crumble when you poke it with a fingertip—then it is ready to be worked and ready for early sowings. 


Some seeds won’t germinate unless the soil is warm; if planted into cold soils, they are likely to rot. Squash seeds, for example, need a soil temperature of approximately 18 degrees C , and their seed packets routinely advise delaying sowing “until the soil has warmed.” Other seeds that require warm soils include castor beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, and melons. A temperature of 15-18 degrees C is adequate for all of these. An inexpensive soil thermometer, sold by garden centers and greenhouse-supply companies, is the best tool for measuring soil temperature. For the most accurate reading, test in the morning when the soil is coolest, and push the thermometer probe 5 cm below the surface. 


Because the last frost date (see Seed Packet Translator, below) is an average date, there is always some danger of frost in the days immediately following it. For this reason, the instructions on seed packets often recommend waiting to plant out particularly cold-sensitive varieties until “all danger of frost is past.” To ascertain that date, consult your local nurseries, or experienced gardeners in your area. 


Bring a sample of your soil to the local nurseries and have a complete soil test carried out by its laboratory technicians. Though such a test costs only a few dollars, its results furnish an exact prescription for the fertilizer, lime, organic matter, or other amendments your garden beds need to nurture healthy seed and plant growth. 



Even if you have not tested your soil, it’s a good idea to enrich it with high-quality garden soil. I use the new Miracle-Gro ® Organics Garden Mix for Vegetables and Herbs in my beds. Mix in 8 cm of the Miracle-Gro Organic soil by turning with a spading fork. Then smooth the soil with a rake to remove any pebbles or twigs and break up remaining clods. 


Traditionally, direct-sown vegetables and flowers have been planted in evenly spaced rows. This ensures that each plant has ample room to spread its roots as it grows. It also makes it easy to keep the garden weed-free by hoeing the surface of the soil between rows. Today, however, many gardeners prefer to sow in blocks: They “broadcast” the seed, sprinkling it evenly over the surface of a bed, in blocks up to three feet wide, and then work it into the soil with a hand cultivator (this works especially well with shallowly sown vegetable seeds such as lettuce or arugula). Because it leaves no soil unplanted, broadcasting makes more efficient use of precious garden space. In the flower garden, this technique lends itself to the creation of large flowing “drifts” of colour.


With stakes and strings, mark planting rows on the bed, spacing them at the intervals noted on the seed packets. Draw one corner of a hoe blade along the ground under each string, opening a furrow of the depth recommended for that kind of seed on the packet. For tiny seeds, such as lettuce, I simply lay the handle of a hoe or rake on the soil and press down to make a shallow furrow.

Next, drop the seeds along the bottom of the furrow, again observing the recommended spacing. Always sow the seeds more closely than you want the mature plants to stand.  The germination rate of direct-sown seeds is relatively low, so you’ll need the extra seedlings to avoid gaps in the row when the seedlings emerge.  Where seedlings are crowded, you can thin. 

With a sifting of soil, cover seeds to the depth specified by seed packets. Or use an old rule-of-thumb: Cover a seed to a depth equal to three times its diameter. After sowing each packet of seed, write the plant name and sowing date with an indelible marker on two wood or metal labels, and place one at each end of the row before moving on to your next sowing.


Mark the borders of planting blocks on the surface of the raked beds with a line of garden lime dribbled between your fingers. Blocks should be no more than four feet wide, enabling you to reach into the center without stepping on the planted area. If the soil surface has crusted, loosen it with a hand cultivator. Then sprinkle seeds evenly over the soil surface. Space them so that the interval between seeds is equal to the distance the seed packet recommends for spacing seeds within a row; ignore the interval recommended for separating rows. 

After distributing the seeds evenly across the bed, cover them with a thin layer of sifted compost, or work them in by scratching the soil back and forth lightly with the hand cultivator. Then label the block, again recording the type of seed and the sowing date.



A few vining fruit and vegetable crops, such as melons and squashes, are usually planted in circles of seeds, called hills (PHOTO ABOVE). You’ll find the proper spacing between hills on the seed packet. After germination, remove all but the two sturdiest seedlings from each hill.


Water the bed with a fine spray of water from a hose or watering can, enough to thoroughly moisten the top couple of cm soil. Then cover the row or block with a “floating row cover.” Made from light, porous translucent, plastic fabric, a row cover filters the sun and blocks the wind, keeping the soil underneath moist and slightly warmer than uncovered beds, and thus aiding germination.  

Row covers are good for both vegetables and flowers. They also keep birds and flying insects from feeding on seeds and seedlings. 

Drape the row-cover material loosely over the planted area, leaving plenty of slack so that the emerging seedlings can push the fabric upward (that’s how the row cover “floats”). Then dig a trench a few cm deep around the perimeter of the planted area, tuck the edges of the row cover into the trench, and bury them with the loosened soil to anchor it. In the flower garden, a row cover should be taken off as soon as the seedlings have produced a couple of true leaves. In the vegetable garden, a cover may stay in place until the onset of hot weather, or until fruiting plants such as squashes start to flower, at which time the cover must be removed to let pollinators reach the blossoms. 


If all goes well, most of the seeds you have sown will germinate. The result will be a row or block that is overcrowded. Thin by pulling out excess seedlings, so that the remainder stand at the intervals recommended on the seed packet. It is important to thin while the seedlings are still small, before they develop extensive root systems; that way, in pulling one you won’t disrupt its neighbours. I use thinnings from beets to flavour stocks and soups, and to add a delicate crunch to salads. I also add pulled seedlings on the compost heap or feeds them to my chickens. 


If you find that you’ve missed the appropriate seed planting window and still want to grow outdoors, starter plants, sometimes known as plugs, are an option. These are plants grown from seed or from cuttings in commercial greenhouses. They are more expensive than growing from seed, but less time is required before planting them outside. Purchase them close to your outdoor planting window and care for them the same as you would your seedlings grown from seed. 

Article by Martha Stewart, as part of the Growing with Martha Stewart partnership.