Pricking Out, Potting on, and Transplanting: All You Need to Know

Indoor-sown plants need tender loving care to flourish. Show your seedlings some love and you’ll see them grow into strong and productive individuals.

Reader Contribution by Benedict Vanheems
article image
by AdobeStock/Pasko Maksim

Seedlings can be pricked out from trays into their own plugs to pots as soon as they’re big enough to handle. All-purpose potting mix is fine. Work with small batches of seedlings at a time so their roots don’t dry out. Ease the seedlings out of the tray they were growing in then carefully pull them apart, keeping as much of the original potting mix around the roots as possible.

Make depressions in the potting mix with your finger or a pencil. Lift each seedling carefully by a leaf (never by the delicate stem), feed the roots into the hole, then firm in. If the seedlings are looking a little stretched you can help support them by burying the stem up to the lowest leaves. Water seedlings with a watering can or hose fitted with a fine rose.

Plugs vs Pots

Trays with smaller plugs are great for salad crops, while larger plugs are best for larger, hungrier seedlings like brassicas or crops that will be grown on for longer before planting.

Individual pots are more suitable for larger seedlings and for tender crops like tomatoes and peppers that won’t be planted out until after the last frost. They may need to be potted on once or twice again before being transplanted into their final growing positions.

Preparing Seedlings for Planting

Water enough to keep the potting mix moist, but avoid overwatering. Remember to ventilate greenhouses, tunnels and cold frames on mild, sunny days to lower the risk of molds developing.

Once the soil warms up to around 50ºF and has dried out a little, it’s time to start transplanting cool-season crops like lettuce, onions, peas and beets. Check out the green bars in our Garden Planner’s Plant List to see a range of recommended dates for your location.

Plants must be sufficiently hardened off (acclimatized) before transplanting. To harden off, put them somewhere sheltered outside for a short time during the day, and gradually extend the amount of time that plants are outdoors over the span of a week or two until they’re staying out all day. Then it’s time to transplant.

Transplanting Seedlings

Plant seedlings into soil that has been amended with well-rotted organic matter such as compost. Make holes in the soil using a hand trowel, dibber, or just your fingers. Put a seedling in each hole then firm in and water.

Cover new transplants with row cover fabric early in the season to trap warmth and protect seedlings from the wind, cold and birds. Weigh down the edges of the fabric with bricks, stones or boards. Remove covers once the weather has warmed up.

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.