Roots Down, Stems Up – Transplanting Success
by Joyce Schillen (copyright 2004)
Rows of beautiful plants on display at garden centers can take your breath away, the lush greenery and dazzling colors nearly screaming for attention. So how do you pick out the best plants and then get them off to a good start in your garden? Here are a few tips.
If you buy transplants instead of growing your own, be sure to select stocky, healthy plants that are free of insects and diseases. Inspect the undersides of leaves as well as the tops and reject plants with hidden beasties that pose a danger.
Look also for plants with robust root systems. A few roots snaking their way out of drainage holes indicate a vigorous plant that's ready to burst into growth. Beware, though, of rootbound plants whose roots are tangled into a solid mass, or winding thickly around the inside of the pot.
Buy plants that are NOT already in full flower or bearing fruit. If, for instance, you buy tomato or pepper plants already bearing fruit, remove the fruit first before planting. It's hard to sacrifice those tiny, hopeful tomatoes or peppers, but it's better to let plants put their energy into establishing good, strong root systems before putting their efforts into producing fruit.
Locally grown plants may show superior performance. They're better acclimated to the vicinity, especially if they were grown from seed that was produced locally or regionally. Ask for locally-grown plants at nurseries or buy them direct from local growers at growers markets.
HARDEN OFF PLANTS BEFORE PLANTING
Harden your plants for a week or ten days before putting them in the ground. This process exposes plants gradually to sun, wind, and cooler weather, making them less susceptible to wilting and transplant shock. Begin by putting plants in a cold frame or some other protected area for a few hours, making sure they're indoors at night protected from cold temperatures. Gradually move them into more open areas for longer periods of time.
PREPARE THE GARDEN BED
Check the instructions that sometimes come with plants, or consult a gardening guide if you're not familiar with a particular plant's requirements. Prepare a garden bed where your plants are most likely to thrive, for instance in full sun or partial shade.
Remove weeds so they won't compete with your new seedlings. Turn the soil, breaking up large clods, and add organic matter if the soil is too heavy or too sandy. Add an all-purpose fertilizer to the bed or mix it into the soil below each plant.
WHEN'S THE BEST TIME TO PLANT?
An excellent time is on an overcast day, and even better is when it's drizzling or raining lightly. That kind of weather is perfect from the plants' standpoint. A rain suit and rubber gloves will keep the gardener protected from the weather.
Plants have a better chance to take root and become established when they don't have to contend with harsh conditions such as intense sunlight, heat, or soil that dries out quickly.
If no rain or clouds are in sight, provide shelter from intense sunlight, heat, and wind with newspaper caps or a temporary lean-to placed on the south side.
HOW TO PLANT
A few hours before planting, water plants so they'll easily slip out of their pots without damaging the roots. Turn the pot upside down with the plant stem between your fingers and tap it on the bottom so the soil ball will slide out. Avoid damaging roots or bruising the stems. If roots are compacted into a mass, gently loosen the root ball with your fingers.
Planting depths vary for different types of plants. Many annuals may be planted deeper than they were in their pots. The advantage is more stem area under ground to anchor the plant and to send out new roots.
Perennials, for the most part, should be planted at the same depth as when potted, or with crowns just at the surface.
Dig a hole that allows generous room for the roots and water the soil. After gently positioning the seedling and spreading its roots, fill the hole with soil making sure it's in good contact with all root surfaces, avoiding air pockets. Tamp down the surface and water again thoroughly when done. Use liquid fish fertilizer with that last watering. It's weak enough to not burn tender young roots, and it provides an immediate source of nutrients.
If seedlings are in peat pots, peel away the top inch or so. When soil settles below the rim of peat pots, the pot acts like a wick and draws moisture to the surface where it too quickly evaporates.
Have you found tiny seedlings lying dead, sliced off at the soil surface? Cutworms are the likely culprit. These segmented, half-inch to one-inch long, tightly coiled worms chew through stems where they emerge from the ground. If cutworms are a problem in your garden, put a cardboard collar around the stems placed both below and above the soil surface. Paper towel cardboard cores work fine.
Water new transplants deeply once or twice during the first few weeks, then cut back to a standard watering schedule. Feed according to the individual plant's needs.
Spend plenty of time in your garden looking for developing situations so you can take care of them before they turn into problems.
And don't forget to take time to simply appreciate the wonderful show that nature puts on in our gardens year after year.