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.

transplanting a vegetable seedling step 1
1. Pinch bottom of container with one hand while tugging gently on stem of plant with other hand
transplanting a vegetable seedling step 2
2. Tease roots straight if they are circling around the sides and bottom
transplanting a vegetable seedling step 3
3. Insert trowel with tip angled toward you, then pull dirt up and out in order to create an opening; immediately place seedling into opening and then remove trowel
transplanting a vegetable seedling step 4
4. Slide dirt around sides to fill opening
transplanting a vegetable seedling step 6
5. Water around seedling

Some elaboration

Step 1. Removing plant from container: 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. Teasing roots straight: Why tease the roots straight? If they’re circling and clumped at the bottom, then elongating them immediately gives them a larger and deeper zone of soil to draw water and nutrients from in their new home. It’s like giving them a larger root system.

Step 3. Putting seedling into dirt: 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. Filling opening: 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. You can and they root along the stem, but 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 in order to help them stand more erect.

Step 5. Watering: 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. But what about adding fertilizer? I do know some very experienced gardeners who add fertilizer to the hole when they transplant, and that works for them; however, that’s not my style. I only add compost to the surface of the soil in 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.

And I said it’s such a simple act. Well, so is eating and sleeping and running and singing and . . .

Here are a couple other posts you might like to read:

“When to transplant vegetable seedlings?”

“Which vegetables can you plant now?”

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