How to Plant and Transplant
Now that you have your garden essentials in place, it's time to think about which plants you want. When putting a plant into the ground, it needs special attention from the time it is planted until the point at which the plants is mature. The plants must be in good condition before planting. If you purchase a plant that looks stressed for any reason other than being root bound, take the time to strengthen the plant before introducing the additional stress of transplanting. All plants dislike root disturbance and will cease growing for a period after being put into the ground until their roots once again start reabsorbing nutrients from the soil.
Do not transplant plants in
Most purchased plants will have time hair-like roots that should only half-fill the pot before the plant is ready to plant. However, you'll notice many purchased plants will already be well beyond this stage when you get them home. Always match the type of plant you are purchasing with the type of soil that you will be able to provide it at home. If it is a garden plant that will go into your garden, be sure you have properly amended your garden soil to meet the plants' needs.
What to look for when purchasing potted plants
- Look for vibrant green foliage and stems on a plant with at least six leaves.
- Avoid leggy seedlings. Tomatoes and peppers should be wider than they are tall.
- Don't buy seedlings that is already forming fruit or has a lot of buds on it.
- Try to avoid plants where they are already root bound. A good indicator of this is if you see roots coming out of the bottom of the pot.
- Roots should be bright white. When a plant is removed from its pot, its roots should be visible, but not curled around the pot or thickly matted around the soil. You can gently slide the plant out of the pot to take a peek.
- Root bound plants can be repotted into larger pots, giving them time to establish new fibrous roots and then can be successfully transplanted into the soil.
- If you remove the plant from the pot and the soil falls away from the roots, the plant is not yet ready for transplanting as the roots had not yet established themselves in the soil. Immediately replant the plant into the originally container. However, replanting in the pot has a somewhat limited success rate, so plan for this in your confidence level of the number of plants that will make it to maturity.
- The perfect root ball is when the plants has a network of fibrous roots that hold the compost together when the plants i removed from the pot, but is not constricted.
Preparing plants for transplanting: the hardening process
- Hardening plants will enable them to withstand the shock of being transplanted into the garden and move quicker toward new growth and fruiting. Most nursery plants have been living in a sheltered indoor environment with limited to no environmental fluctuations.
- Plants should be hardened for at least a week to 10 days, and up to two weeks, before transplanting.
- Move the containers to a shady spot outdoors that is protected from winds and drastic temperature fluctuations. Start with a half-hour outdoors and gradually increase to 8 hours, then overnight. Increase the amount of sunlight during the process. They will be prepared to live outdoors permanently when you see the plants are growing strongly and are not stressed by the outdoor weather. Signs of stress include wilted, yellowed and broken or "chewed" leaves.
- As with transplanting, never put seedlings outside on windy days without windbreaks and protect from rain storms.
- Be sure to bring the plants back into a warm place or cover them well with gardening blankets to protect the plants during colder temperatures.
- Cold frame works well for the hardening process. If no cold frame is available, you can construct a make-shift cold frame using hay or straw bales placed to form a square with plastic sheeting anchored over the square. You will need to water plants more frequently than if you kept them indoors.
How to transplant
Most plants needs at least a month in a container after potting before planting out in their permanent home. This means plants should be at least 6 to 10 weeks old before they are transplanted.
- The advantage of potted plants is you can place them in your garden in the pots in trial patterns until you find the one that best suits the plants' needs. Remember that most vegetables require what is called "full sun", but in the deep south and west, that translates to something more along the lines of 6 to 8 hours a day, so keep this in mind. Be aware of areas like walls that can create shady areas that you may not have anticipated which will impact growth and fruiting.
- Provide a wind break for the plants by shielding them with a wall or fence, but be sure there isn't too much shade projected onto your growing area that will impact the minimum number of sunlight hours required for the plants to grow successfully. If in doubt, try to spend a day watching how shadows move across your garden.
- Dig a hole for each plant that is about twice the size of the root ball of the plant. More compacted soil requires larger holes, to allow the roots of the plants to easily spread out.
- Gently turn the plant upside down and tap the plant out of the pot with one hand while gently cradling the plant stem with the other hand. Hold the plant by the root ball, not the stem, and place it in the hole, disturbing the roots as little as possible. However, if the plants roots are a bit root bound, you can carefully loosen the soil a bit to help release the roots and allow them to grow into the new soil more easily.
- Plant the plants one inch deeper than they were in the pots, more if the plants are spindly. For tomatoes, you will want to place the plant deeper into the ground planting up to the first starter leaves.
- Fill in the hole with garden soil, then press firmly around the plant base to form a slight depression or moat around the stem to accumulate water.
- If the plants are in peat pots, peel back the edges and plant into the ground in the pot or remove the entire pot.
- After planting, make certain that the potting soil is completely covered by the new soil and compost and water the plant in well.
Protecting transplants from pests and animals
Young seedlings are popular treats for some pests so inspect often for signs of damage or presence of insects.
- For insect pests, a spray of soapy water is safe to use on young seedlings and will kill soft-bodied and chewing insects. More can be found here.
- Slugs can be baited and killed with beer in shallow containers or with commercial slug baits.
- For animals like deer, rabbits, squirrels and mice, use a physical barrier around plants. Visit the fencing page for more information.
- Taking a plant out of a pot and putting it into a larger pot is called potting up or potting on.
- Seedlings can be moved into larger pots once they are a few inches tall and have a few true leaves.
- Select a container one size larger than the pot the plant is in now. Make sure the pot is clean. Place a shard from a broken pot or a piece of screen over the drainage hole to keep soil from washing out.
- Fill the container approximately 2/3 full with soil.
- If the soil in the existing pot is very dry, wetting it may help with removal.
- To remove, hold your hand against the soil and around the stem, turn the pot upside down, and tap the rim on a surface. Once it's loose, grasp the plant near the soil; pull gently, cradling the plant in your hand.
- Disturb the roots as little as possible unless the roots have become bound together.
- If the roots are tangled, lightly loosen the outer part of the root ball with your hands or a knife, being careful not to damage the delicate roots.
- Position the plant in the pot. Fill in soil around it, pressing gently down on the soil until the soil level is even with the root ball.
- Water the plant in. If the soil sinks significantly, add in a bit more soil as needed.