Seeds & Seedlings

5 Tips for Surface Sowing Seeds

Surface sowing seeds? It's not as ridiculous as it sounds, and for some seeds, it's more ideal than being covered in soil. 

If you think about it, the idea of surface sowing seeds isn’t that radical. I can guarantee there aren’t many gardeners carefully measuring out the perfect depth to plant dandelion seeds, and yet, they are everywhere. Blown randomly about by the wind, the seeds land in your yard, along well-trodden paths, and thrive in that small crevice within a broken concrete slab.

That’s the case with many wildflowers, too. Seeds are carried by the wind, or passed through the intestines of songbirds and dropped on the surface of the earth. What about vegetables, though? Will surface sowing work? And what considerations are there?

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How to make surface sowing work like a charm

For as long as I’ve been gardening, and even before that, I’ve been amazed by seeds. That something so tiny contains the energy and material to grow into the vast array of fruits and vegetables we eat is astounding. Of course, agricultural practices help things along, but really, that’s just an addendum. 

One of those agricultural practices that we humans have learned about in our thousands of years of gardening is that seeds do best when they’re planted at specific depths. Generally speaking, larger seeds need to be sown a little more deeply into the soil, while small seeds do better with very minimal amounts of soil on top. 

It’s those small seeds, like mustard seeds or lettuce seeds, for example, that prefer surface sowing. There are some differing definitions of what surface sowing is. Some gardening resources describe it quite literally, in that the seed sits on the surface of the soil. Others consider any seed with just a dusting of soil over it to be surface sown. 

For our purposes, we’re going to go with the second definition if for no other reason than these tips are appropriate whether the seed is literally on the soil surface or just underneath. 

1. Read your seed packet. I realize this is kind of a boring tip, but do this and I promise the results will astound you. Remember, those seeds only have a certain amount of energy stored up, so if they get planted too deeply and can’t make it to the surface before that energy runs out, it’s over. Plus, seed packets have all sorts of good information on them, such as how much space to give your vegetables and when it’s okay to plant them outdoors or start them indoors

2. Know your measurements. Some vegetable seeds, like red peppers or tomatoes, only need to be covered with 1/4 inch of soil. That’s less than the width of an iPhone. You could also make it easy on yourself and use a tool like the Fiskars Seed Planting Garden Trowel with debossed measurements on the blade. 

3. Moisten the soil before planting. One of the significant issues with surface sowing is that it’s so easy for splashing water to carry your seeds away or bury them underneath too much soil. An easy way to prevent this is to moisten the soil first, especially for those seeds that you plant directly in your garden or raised bed. 

4. Use a tool to help you distribute seeds. Again, why not make it easy on yourself and use a tool to help distribute the seeds? That way, you can space them out appropriately, and you don’t end up with half a dozen dropped into one spot. I haven’t used this one yet, but am thinking I might pick it up for next season. 

5. Press the seed in. This tip for surface sowing comes from Texas A&M University. They suggest that “Due to the extremely small size of the seed, the area should be prepared and the seed sown directly on the surface of the soil, then pressed or rolled in. DO NOT COVER.”

What tips am I missing here? Are there steps you take when you’re starting seeds right near or on the surface of the soil?

By Amanda MacArthur

Amanda MacArthur is Senior Editor & Producer for Food Gardening Network and GreenPrints. She is responsible for generating all daily content and managing distribution across web, email, and social. In her producer role, she plans, edits, and deploys all video content for guides, magazine issues, and daily tips. As a best-selling cookbook author, Amanda cooks using ingredients from her outdoor gardens in the summer and from her indoor hydroponic garden in the winter.

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