Transplanting Seedlings

Picture of seedlings
Seedlings that are just about big enough to transplant

OK, you’ve identified how much garden space you need, chosen your veggies, planned some container gardensstarted seedlings, completed all of your March garden tasks, and chosen a seed company, now you’re probably ready to transplant some of those seedlings you started!

Check your seedlings and if they’re not quite big enough to transplant, be ruthless and thin to one plant per cell on all vegetables except perhaps onions and basil. Thin by pinching the extra seedlings off at soil level with your fingernails so that you don’t risk disturbing the roots of the one strongest-looking seedling you want to keep in each cell. It has taken me years to get up the courage to murder plants I started from seed, but doing so has made my plants better in the long run. So do it.

picture of roots coming out the bottom of a four pack of seedlings
The roots are just starting to show here - time to transplant!

Next, if your seedlings have two true sets of leaves, or if roots are starting to come out the bottom of the four-packs, it’s probably time to transplant. Try to transplant before the plants are fighting each other for sunlight or are so root bound that you see a mass of white roots when you pull the seedling out of the cell-pack. In either of these scenarios, the seedling is already compromised and you want to transplant before that happens.

Just like with starting the seeds, you need a bag or two of pre-moistened potting medium (I’ve been using Eko and am pretty happy with it) and some nice clean pots. I typically use ones I’ve saved from garden-center purchases in past seasons, usually in 2.25″ or 3.5″ sizes. If you started with soil-less medium, make sure this time that you’ve got something with a little compost or worm castings in it to feed the plants as they grow.

Once you’ve assembled all of your supplies, pinched back your extra seedlings (wait a minute, you didn’t pinch them back?! Go back and reread paragraph 2 and then GET RUTHLESS), and put on some grubby clothes, take a break and count your seedlings. Then–and this is very important–label your pots. Sticking a plant marker in a four-pack of seedlings is one thing, but writing out individual labels for the potted-up plants can be daunting, expensive, and prone to disaster in the form of children who like to pull out plant-markers. So I use a Brother-style label printer and print out the variety and stick it on the pot BEFORE I PLANT IN IT. That way, I won’t forget, have trouble getting it to stick because my hands are covered with soil, etc.

It’s likely that the first plants to be ready for transplant will the be tomatoes. Yes, even though you planted the peppers first, the tomatoes grow more quickly and will likely need to be transplanted as much as 4 weeks before your peppers. So label your tomato pots and then water all your seedlings. Moist soil will be easier to handle and you’ll be less likely to damage your plants. Then gently slide a cell out of it’s cell-pack (I turn them upside down and gently squeeze with my fingers supporting the soil so that the seedling doesn’t fall onto the floor) and place it in a pot already 75% filled with soil. Add more soil around the seedling (I usually plant the seedling a bit below what it’s original soil level was) and pack very gently. Put it in an empty flat (because you’ll want to continue to water these seedlings from the bottom) and move on to the next one.

Now is probably a good time to start feeding the little guys too. I use Neptune’s Harvest seaweed blend and it does not smell great, but it seems to work well. Most of the “how-tos” I’ve read say to fertilize every two weeks, but I think the best thing to do is watch your plants. If they’re growing strong and there are no off colors (purple or yellow leaves, for example), then keep doing what you’re doing. You may find with the natural fertilizers you need to feed a bit more often. I probably feed mine every time I remember, which works out to about every 1.5 weeks (or about every third time I water) because I don’t remember to do it every other week.

And then the waiting begins. Will it be a snowy spring or will you be able to set your wall-o-waters out on April 1. Will your plants outgrow your space before they can be moved to the cold frames outside. What, you’ve never heard of a wall-o-water? Looks like I need to blog about season extenders next time…

2 thoughts on “Transplanting Seedlings

  1. I typically transplant my tomatoes so that the stem is buried to the first leaves. The stem will grow roots and, as you mentioned, make a sturdier plant. If I transplant the tomatoes a second time (which I often do–up to 5″ pots), I typically bury them a bit deeper that time, and then when I plant them out, I pinch off the bottom leaves and plant them deeper still. We have a lot of wind here, so the more we can do to build a sturdy stem, the better. Putting a fan on the seedlings also helps build a stronger stem, but also dries them out faster!! Good luck–you guys seem to be having quite a cool wet spring just like we are…

  2. Great article.. Do you pinch off your first real leaves and transplant with the pinched part below the soil level? I have read that doing this helps create a stronger root system and sturdier plant. I’m in New England and started my seeds two weeks ago.

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