Transplanting Seedlings to More Favorable Beds

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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Spring is coming.  I keep telling myself that, despite the squalls of snow and the slushy roads.  Spring is coming, despite the frozen ground in the morning and the frost spiraling on the walls of the high tunnel.  The days are lengthening, new birds are returning each day, and the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse echoes through the farm like the sound of a distant motor starting.

But cold snaps in April are common here.  The old adage is to wait on planting warm-loving crops until Memorial weekend, which still often holds true.  The short growing season means that day-length sensitive plants (once it is safe for them to grow outside) shoot up with amazing speed, showing noticeable maturity from day to day.  Ever seen what happens when you waited maybe just six hours too long to go pick the zucchini?

Even with our incredibly long summer days, the shortness of the growing season as a whole is a disadvantage to many crops.  That means fibbing with nature and starting plants inside to get ahead of the setbacks.  This way, months of establishing roots and growing stocky shoots that can withstand a little cold has already taken place before exposure to outside weather.  But there’s definitely work involved.

First, we start the seeds inside the aquaponics greenhouse (much like any other baby plant being prepared for the system), but that space only lasts about two weeks before the plants are vying for sunlight and root space.  At that point, it’s time to break up the party and move the seedlings into a larger growing venue.  In the greenhouse, this means breaking the cells apart carefully and “planting” them into a raft tray or a media bed.  But for plants destined for the garden, it’s still too cold out. 

That’s when it’s time to start making transplant pots.  Of course, there are plenty of nice products you can buy (like peat pots) for this purpose, but when you’re transplanting hundreds of seedlings, this can be an expensive proposition.  I’m always interested in repurposing everyday items once they’ve served their original purpose, and transplanting season is one of those times where this upcycling transformation occurs.

We use a simple, wooden, two-part tool called a “pot maker” for creating our own biodegradable transplant pots.  First, I cut the newspaper into strips about five or six inches wide, then taking one strip at a time, roll it up on the pot maker (not too tight, or they’ll never come off!!!), fold the excess paper on the bottom to close off the end, and crush it against the second pieces of wood with a twisting motion that presses the memory of the shape into the paper.  Pull off the new little pot, grab another piece of newspaper, and repeat.  On a slow day at Farmstead Creamery, I might make a few hundred of these before wrist fatigue sets in.

Meanwhile, I’ve made a trip out to the compost pile to find some well-decomposed humus and the dirt pile for some topsoil set aside from a construction project.  I scoop the earthy mix into five-gallon buckets and bring them inside the farmhouse to warm up.  Life is cozy and warm in the greenhouse.  If those little seedlings are moved into chilly soils, they can go into shock that can either kill them or stunt their growth for the rest of the season. 

Babying Seedlings Through the Cold Spring Weather 

Last spring, I was transplanting on the picnic tables outside, with the sun shining and a teasing spring breeze.  But since the broccoli and cauliflower couldn’t wait any longer without a bit more elbow room, and the snow was swirling outside, I dropped an old blanket down on the farmhouse kitchen floor and started the tedious but rewarding process of introducing these little plants to their first mini home in soil.

First, I mix the topsoil and compost in a tub, adding water if the mix is too dry.  Then taking up a cup, I fill about two-thirds full of the soil mix, carefully place the seedling on top with its grow cube, then sprinkle more around the sides and on top, finishing with a careful tamping press to firm up the support for the plant. 

I have a tray going where the little pots snug up against each other like little green soldiers.  At first, the paper pots are stiff and dry, but with watering they soften, and eventually the roots of the seedlings grow through the slowly disintegrating paper until there is just enough substance left to hold it all together in time go into the ground in the gardens.  By then, we’ll be thinking about how spring is starting to turn towards summer!

Now it’s looking like the tomato seedlings are ready for the move into pots as well, so there’s three more buckets of compost and soil warming up in the farmhouse kitchen.  The little brassicas are doing great—I could swear they’ve doubled in size already.  Hopefully soon the nights will be warm enough that they can move out to the walkways of the high tunnel, where the cheery little first leaves of radishes and spinach are popping up in eager anticipation of the season.

There’s something unmistakably joyous about beginning the growing season.  The weeds haven’t crowded in yet, or the gnats.  I’ve temporarily forgotten how blistering the sun can be when you’re out working for hours, wondering why on earth you planted so many cucumbers!  And the memory of picking endless potato beetles is so far off that, in the moment, my only thought is how happy these new little plants will be.  Soon they’ll have a bit more room for their roots to grow and their leaves to stretch.  That means happy plants and yummy produce to come.

Transplanting is another one of those precious rights of springtime on the farm.  There’s always work involved, but it’s also always worth it to be an active part of the unfolding of a new season.  I better be getting to those tomatoes.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo Credit: Baby brassica plants ready for transplanting. (photo by intern LeeAra Scott). Older brassica plants on their first day transition from transplant pots to life in the garden—a scene yet to come but not too far off. (photo by intern Garett Egeland)

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLCand Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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