Growing plants from seeds can be difficult, especially if the plant is out of season. There are variables to consider and the first few weeks are the most fragile. Some plants are so sensitive that the only way to successfully grow them in unfamiliar climates is through transplanting.
Transplanting is the technique of moving a plant from one growing medium to another. It allows gardeners to start a plant from a seed, which is sensitive to the environment and fragile, in optimal conditions before transferring it to a more permanent location in the garden. Transplanting can extend the plant’s growing season and can protect young and delicate plants, all while avoiding the harsh, outside weather. When done successfully, transplanting is a great way to grow new plants, extend their season, and experience the joys of gardening indoors and outdoors. However, it can come with a cost.
Simply put, plants aren’t meant to be moved--that’s why roots run deep and steel themselves in the earth. Moving plants from one area to another may incite transplant shock, which can kill the plant. To avoid this, plants need to be treated carefully and adjusted gradually to their surrounding environment.
Seeds and Seedlings
Before transplanting, you need to consider plant durability and strength. Plant the seed in the center of a flower pot big enough to support that specific plant. Be sure to use a flower pot with good drainage and a soil with high nutrient content (most compost and peat moss enriched soils or seed starting soil mixes found at home improvement stores should suffice). Seeds have different germination times, which can easily be identified from the back of the seed package or online. Allow the seed to grow indoors with frequent water and moderate amounts of direct sunlight or larger amounts of indirect sunlight. In roughly six weeks the seed will have transformed into a seedling; almost ready for transplanting.
If you don’t have pots to begin seed germination, paper based egg crates are a great alternative. Simply fill the empty crate slots with a soil mix (mentioned above) and place ~2 seeds in each slot (just in case one doesn’t germinate). Depending upon the seed type you’ll either plant it deeper or more shallow into the soil. One of the most popular plants to grow in the U.S., tomatoes, should be plant roughly 1/4 of an inch under the soil. The beauty of the paper egg crate is that when transplanting time comes, you simply tear each slot off with the plant, place it in your soil, and the paper composts into the soil. More on that later though.
Knowing when is the right time to transplant a plant doesn’t depend on size, as each variety of seedling is unique in size and shape. Instead, look at the amount of true leaves on the seedling. The first leaves a seedling sprouts are called cotyledons, which provide stored food to the young and emerging plant. As it becomes stronger, the “true leaves” will emerge and begin generating energy through photosynthesis. These are almost always darker and bigger than the cotyledons. Once there are three to four true leaves present, the plant is ready to be transplanted to the outdoors.
The most important part of the transplanting process is hardening off. This is the part when you allow the young plant to gradually adjust to outdoor conditions. Hardening off usually occurs over a week to two week period, as sudden shifts of environment will cause plant shock and possible deterioration. When a plant is hardening off, its appearance may not change, but the cellular structure of its stems and leaves will adjust so that the plant can survive in a new environment.
To begin this process, start by leaving the young plants outside for small periods of time. Begin with an hour, and then steadily increase the amount of time you leave the plant outside daily over the course of the next one to two weeks. By the end of the hardening period, the plant should spend the majority of its day outside in its new environment. If there are no signs or symptoms of shock, such as pale and sunburned leaves, the plant is ready to make the transition to the garden.
While the plant is in the hardening off process, you can prepare the seedling’s new residence. Mix compost and fertilizer into the soil so that it is fresh and full of nutrients the new plant will crave. This is called “energizing” the soil, and it helps with the transplanting transition. Scientists strongly believe that plants resist disease and become stronger when they have healthy relationships with the rhizosphere. The rhizosphere is the space where roots and soil come together in a symbiotic bond. A nutrient filled rhizosphere is the lynchpin to a healthy plant.
Before you begin the formal transplanting process, you’ll need confirm that the soil temperature is within the plant’s preferred range. Cold soil does not make for optimal growing conditions. Also, check the weather and avoid transplanting if there is a heat wave. Heat can overwhelm the plant and cause shock, so wait for a few cloudy and moist days.
It is time to move the plant from its protected and stable home to the wilds of a garden. It has grown, been hardened, and the soil is ready.
Instead of pulling the plant out of the flowerpot and stressing it, push it out by loosening the soil and gradually pushing on the bottom of the pot (if the pot is plastic and moveable). This is the gentlest way to remove a plant from its home, and helps ease the transition. Always avoid touching the main stem. It has been acclimating to a new environment for the past week and considered fragile. Instead use the lowest leaves to transfer it into its new home. If they break off, it’s okay; it’s better than if the stem breaks. If using the paper egg crate as mentioned earlier, gently tear each egg slot away from the crate (at this point the paper should be fairly soft due to watering) while keeping the seedling intact, bring it over to your garden and gently tear the sides of the paper so roots can more easily grow through after setting the seedling and newly torn egg slot into the garden hole you’ve dug for it.
Once set in the garden hole, pack the nutrient rich soil around your transplant as much as possible. Now that it has successfully been moved, drench the soil surrounding the plant with water - be cognizant not to wash the soil away from the plant. This reacts with water-soluble nutrients and the roots will reach out to grow in their new environment. If there is any worry about transplant shock occurring, try covering the plants from long hours of direct sunlight or to retain soil warmth. Cover the plant intermittently over a 4 day period, furthering the gradual transition process and minimizing the possibility of shock.
Transplant shock happens most often because of damage a plant sustains during the transplant process. If a plant’s roots or stem are harmed, the plant will lose nutrients and go into shock. Seedlings are delicate and in a critical time of growth, so this is why you have to be careful when transplanting them and make sure they’re hearty enough to survive the move.
Some symptoms of shock to look out for include reduced vigor (small, less vibrant structure), and curled, rolled or yellowing leaves. If you notice your transplanted plant is in shock, make sure to keep the plant’s soil moist and keep its exposure to direct sunlight to a minimum in order to minimize further damage. Eventually the seedling will return to health and soon become a strong plant, capable of living in its new environment.
Transplanting is a delicate process, but offers so many benefits to the gardening enthusiast. Remember to follow these simple steps: allow the seedling to grow indoors until true leaves appear, allow the seedling to harden over time, prepare the garden, transplant carefully, and watch for transplant shock symptoms for the first few days. Do those things and your plants will flourish long after the transplanting process is over.
Bryan Traficante is one of the co-founders of GardenInMinutes.com, where his family and he have one mission: making it easier for you build and grow great garden. They’re the inventors of the Garden Grid watering system, crafters of modular garden beds, and share time saving gardening advice on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and their video series, aptly named Easy Growing.
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