Transplanting vegetable seedlings is such a simple act, and yet there are better and worse ways to do it. There’s even an artfulness and fluidity to the process. Here are photos with captions describing the five motions that I go through.
It’s about getting the plant into a new piece of ground in the least stressful way, and it’s also about being efficient. This is the best method I know of, after having tried variations and additional steps. Below the photo sequence are details about and reasons for each step.
Step 1. Pictured is a small eggplant seedling in a six pack. If dealing with a larger plant, in a four- or six-inch container, I make a Star Trek sign with my left hand and put the V around the plant’s stem, then I turn the container upside down. A squeeze with my right hand is sometimes necessary to get the root ball to slide out.
Step 2. Why tease the roots straight? Roots can’t move within the dirt. However you place them is how they’ll remain for life. Elongating them gives them a larger and deeper zone of soil to draw water and nutrients from right off the bat. I have to admit though that I’ve never compared the growth of seedlings whose roots are left circled and seedlings whose roots I’ve teased straight — nor have I seen such a study — so I don’t know for certain that this step is effective.
Step 3. No biggie if you don’t own a trowel. Dig with a butter knife, or a stick, or just your fingers. My earliest memory of gardening is of my mother using a butter knife to do almost everything in her garden. I used a stick to do all vegetable transplanting in my gardens for a decade until my mother-in-law recently gave me a trowel for a Christmas present. I like it a lot, but it’s not required. Also, note that I call it an “opening” and not a hole. What’s the difference? Nothing, except that I want to imply that it doesn’t need to be big or deep and take a long time to make.
Step 4. Now’s the time to make sure the plant is upright and at the same level in the soil as it was in the container. Tug up on the stem or press down beside the stem as needed for adjustment. You may hear that tomatoes should be planted deeper. I don’t bother. I’ve planted them deeper and planted them level and never noticed any difference in growth. On the other hand, seedlings of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale can get long-stemmed and top heavy, and I usually plant them deeper so they stand more erect.
Step 5. Watering around the seedling is usually sufficient to establish good contact between the roots and soil, so no need to tamp around the seedling. Plants with big leaves might topple over when you water them. I make the Star Trek sign with one hand, palm up, and support the stem in the V as I water those plants in. (Until writing this, I never realized how often I make the Star Trek sign while transplanting. What does it mean?)
That’s the process. What about fertilizer? I know some very experienced gardeners who add fertilizer to the hole when they transplant, but that’s not my style. I don’t use fertilizer. I only add compost to the soil surface of my vegetable beds. (I wrote a post about this: Fertile soil can be child’s play.)
There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you start transplanting. First, it’s ideal if the soil in the seedling’s container is not dry. You want the plant to be full of water and not stressed before going through a transplanting. Also, the soil to be planted into should be moist — but not wet or dry. If it’s wet or dry it will be difficult to dig in.
Lastly, there is a best time of day to do transplanting: the cool of the late afternoon or evening. This gives the plant roots a whole night to establish a relationship with their new soil surroundings before needing to perform and support the leaves as they must do during bright sunlight. That being said, in winter or when it’s cloudy, time of day is not a concern.
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