Transplanting Seedlings

A Biodynamic gardener once had a row of broccoli plants. Only two plants had aphids, but both were quite infested. The two plants were dug up, and the gardener discovered that the plants had experienced root damage during transplanting. The healthy broccoli, which had experienced uninterrupted growth, were untouched by the insects, while nature eliminated the unhealthy plants.

When transplanting, it is important to handle the seedlings gently and to touch them as little as possible. Plants do not like their bodies to be handled, though they do like to have human companionship and to have dead leaves removed from their stems. You should hold them only by the tips of their leaves (if the plant must be touched) or by the soil around their roots. If you have grown the seedlings in a tray, use a hand fork to gently separate a 4-inch-square section of soil and plants from the rest. Using the fork, gently lift that section from the flat and place it on the ground. Then carefully pull away one plant at a time from the section for transplanting. If it is particularly dry, hot, or windy, place the section on a wet towel. Always keep as much soil around the roots as possible when transplanting. If the seedling has been grown in a pot, turn the pot upside down, letting the plant stem pass between your second and third fingers, and tap firmly on the bottom of the pot with your other hand. Or tap the lip of the pot on something solid.

In all cases, if the plants are root bound (the roots being so tightly grown together from having been kept in a starting tray or pot so long that with the soil they constitute a tight mass), gently spread the roots out in all directions. This process is important because the plant should not spend critical growth energy sending out a new, wide-ranging root system for eating and drinking when a good root system has already been produced. Instead, the plant’s energy will go into the natural flow of continuous growth.

Be sure to place the seedling into a large enough hole so that the plant can be buried up to its first set of true leaves. Water the seedlings after transplanting to help settle the soil around the roots, to eliminate excess air spaces, and to provide an adequate amount of water for growth. As the soil is packed down under the pressure of watering, the final soil level will remain high enough to cover the upper roots. The plant’s roots need firm contact with the soil to properly absorb water and nutrients. Press the soil firmly around the seedling, if necessary, but not too tightly. Tight packing will damage the roots and will not allow the proper penetration of water, nutrients, and air. Soil that is too loose will allow air and moisture to concentrate around the roots. This will cause root burn and decay.

Transplanting seedlings up to their first true leaves prevents them from becoming top-heavy and bending over during their early growth period. (This is especially true for members of the cabbage family.) If a plant bends over, it will upright itself, but will develop a very “tough neck” that will reduce the quality and size of the plant and crop. Onions and garlic, however, do better if the bulb does not have much soil weight to push up against.

Optimally, transplanting should be done in the early evening so the seedlings get settled into their new home during more moderate weather conditions. If transplanting is performed during the day some temporary shading may be needed. In our hot, summer weather, we shade newly transplanted seedlings with 30% shade netting or Reemay, a “row cover” cloth, for several days to minimize transplanting shock and wilt.

Transplanting is preferable to directly sowing seeds. More importantly, transplanting improves plant health. Beds become compacted as they are watered and the soil will not be as loose for a seed that is planted directly in the bed. Some compaction will have occurred by the time it is a “child” a month later and, in some cases, so much so after 2 months, when it is likely to be an “adolescent,” that its “adulthood” may be seriously affected. If, instead, you transplant the 1-month-old “child” into the growing bed, a strong adult root system can develop during the next 2 months, and a good adult life is likely. In fact, a study at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1950s indicated that a 2% to 4% increase in root health can increase yields 2 to 4 times.