First and foremost, I just want to remind you that this is all my opinion, based on my own experience, reading, and learning. When it comes to gardening, there is no one be-all-end-all way to do anything. So please take what I suggest here and apply it to your own needs. Try it, use what works, and adapt as necessary.
In Situ vs. Ex Situ
In situ means “in the place,” and refers to seeds you plant directly in the ground; rather than seeds that you germinate in flats and then transplant – ie, ex situ.
I’m explaining this because I have found that in general planting in situ is easier, faster, uses less resources (water, propagation supplies, time, energy), and creates healthier plants. I did several experiments two years ago. Below you’ll see a drastic difference between butternut seedlings planted in situ and one transplanted after having germinated in the growing rack:
In the foreground is a small butternut grown from seed ex situ, and then transplanted. In the background are butternut seedlings planted in situ.
All the seeds were planted on the same day.
Here’s another photo of the same plants (the transplant is in the upper left corner):
That’s extreme, but in each of my experiments I found that either the seeds planted in situ produced more rigorous plants, or I found no difference. And if I found no difference, why put myself through the pain of nurturing a seedling in a growing rack when I could just plant it outside with much less effort?
Reasons to Plant Ex Situ
There are reasons to do so. They include: conserving water (you only have to water one tray of plants versus a whole bed), getting a jump start in colder climates (you can start a seedling indoors several weeks before you could plant seeds outdoors), giving the beds another month of benefit from cover crops, being able to control the elements – ie, being able to easily shelter a vulnerable seedling from sun, wind, rain, dryness and cold.
So you have to decide what is best for you, based on your own conditions. My list below includes mostly plants that grow well in situ, because in general I have found that to be the easiest, most reliable way of starting seeds.
Top Twelve Easiest Vegetables to Grow from Seed
1. Beans: pole beans, bush beans, soy beans, lima beans, soup beans, runner beans… any beans. Two years ago, I accounted for every single bean I planted except for three. I finally found those three growing in the front yard – I believe an animal of some kind had carried it away from its original site and planted it there. Of the many, many beans I planted over the last 2 years, every one of them emerged and thrived.
2. Squash: You saw the squash seeding experiment above. I planted blue ballet squash in Geyserville in mid-August, and we harvested at least 25 squash before the frosts came in mid-November! Here in Seattle we planted quite late last year, plus the summer weather was unusually cold and wet and we didn’t quite give our squash enough space nor light… so we had a tougher time growing them. But I suspect that will change when all the cards aren’t stacked against squash growing this year! They still make my top-12 list because when they grow, they grow and grow and grow!
Once upon a time, there was a row in the middle of this photo…
and then it became filled with a deluge of squash:
3. Mesclun Lettuces/Mustard Greens: I’ve planted several mesclun mixes, arugula, red mustard greens, and bronze arrow lettuce. Most of them have done well, whether planted in situ or ex situ. Due to successional planting, we have had wonderful mixed green salads throughout the summer, fall, winter, and spring. (They need protection from high and low temperatures).
4. Beets: I’ve grown several kinds in situ, and all have done well. We eat the greens throughout the winter. And if you leave them in the ground long enough, they become the size of basketballs. Yes, the one my mom is holding below is one of the smaller ones we pulled up last spring!!
5. Kale: I transplanted these from the growing rack. Every one of them survived the process, and the plants flourished throughout the fall and winter. The sweetest kale I’ve ever had.
6. Radishes: A caveat… the first time I tried to grow them, very few came up. But I believe it’s because I tried to germinate them when it was just too hot (90-95F). The second batch I tried grew very well. I grew them beneath the beans, so they had some shelter from the sun and heat. That seems to do the trick, and that’s what I’ve done ever since: grow them beneath something else that lets some light in, but not too much heat.
Radishes grow very fast – if you’re looking for instant gratification, this is the plant to grow. Plus, if you let some go to flower, you will find lots of new beneficial insects coming to your garden. In milder climates, they will bloom through the winter.
7. Tomatillos: I transplanted these from the growing rack. They all did well, and produced loads of tomatillos. We made an amazing salsa from them, and hope to plant them again this year. Apparently they are a reseeding annual, meaning they inevitably leave seeds for the following year. I imagine there were a lot of volunteer tomatillo plants in the garden we left behind in Geyserville!
Ground cherries and huckleberries – cousins of tomatillos – also grow very easily and prolifically from seed.
8. Broccoli: Planted them in situ, and they all came up and did well. Absolutely no complaints, excepting that I would plant them successionally this year rather than all at once. (Ten heads of broccoli ready at the same time is a little much!) Fortunately if you harvest just the head rather than the whole plant, they will sprout new heads laterally on each side for a second, albeit smaller, harvest.
As you can see in the following picture, the flowers are a favorite of beneficial insects. The flowers are edible, too – quite sweet.
9. Peppers: Yep, it’s true! We grew hot peppers and bell peppers last year, and they did quite well. I started them ex situ, in Geyserville. And then I transported them to Seattle, where they continued to germinate. And then we transplanted them very late, but we still had loads of peppers. As a treat I froze a bag of them, and thaw some every once in a while during the winter for just a taste of summer!
One more thing about peppers: from my experience, it is a myth that they need lots of direct sunlight. They seem to do just fine in partial shade. In Geyserville, my pepper plants were literally beneath my tomato forest, receiving very little light, and they were fine. Here in Seattle, I kept a pepper plant on my fire escape which is north-facing and has very little direct sunlight.
10. Potatoes: Very, very simple to grow. You can chit them to get a head start, or just place the whole darn thing in a hole. Then as they grow, mound up the dirt, water them, and in a few months you have lots of potatoes!
11. Garlic: Garlic is even easier than potatoes. There are instructions here. Essentially, you place the cloves in the ground, mound hay over them, water them in the spring, and harvest them in the summer. Only problem is that you need to remember to plant the garlic in the late fall or winter.
12. Tomatoes: The grand finale. Yes, it’s easy to grow this prize of gardeners everywhere! Last year, I planted lots of tomato seeds, thinking that some would die along the way. Nope. They also moved from Geyserville to Seattle in the back of my car, and they did just fine! When you transplant them, make sure to plant them deeply, so that only the top couple of leaf sets are showing. They will make roots along the buried stem, which helps them support themselves later on.