Words and photos by Petra Page-Mann of Fruition Seeds
Happy Spring, friends! With Memorial Day just around the corner, it's finally time to tuck your transplants in the ground.
In general, unstressed transplants grow the greatest abundance. Healthy transplants are short and stout, deep green and not root bound. Whether you're planting them in raised beds, a large garden or in a container on your deck, here are five tips to boost plant health and as a result, the beauty and abundance surrounding you this season.
1. Hardening Off
Whether you grow them or buy them, transplants are sensitive little beings.
Grown indoors with seed-starting soil mix and a roof over their heads, your transplants have lived their lives in conditions very different from those in your garden. They've never experienced gusting winds, falling rain, fluctuating temperatures or real soil, much less rocks. Acclimating them, or "hardening them off," is essential.
To harden plants off, bring them outside 5-7 days before transplanting them into your garden. Their soft stems become stronger with each passing breeze. They grow accustomed to direct sunlight, to the sensation of raindrops, to the shifting temperatures of day and night. What if it freezes? When is too early? Read on.
2. Timing is Everything
Here in the Northeast, we can transplant hardened off, cold-hardy kale, broccoli, chard, spinach and onion six weeks before Memorial Day. The list is much longer, but some of my other favorite cold-hardy crops you can transplant early include kohlrabi, arugula, spinach, certain lettuces (Winter Density is exceptionally cold tolerant) and scallions.
For such cold-hardy transplants, experiencing freezing temperatures is essential. If you plan on using row cover in the field, use row cover at night. Otherwise, know you're acclimating them to the conditions they'll experience in the field and any sugar-coating may result in less abundant harvests. Tough love is definitely applicable for your cold-hardy seedlings! Once they're large enough (3+ true leaves), they can be hardened off and transplanted 6-8 weeks before your final frost. For early plantings, a full week of hardening off will help your seedlings acclimate better and produce all the more. For us here in the Finger Lakes, Memorial Day is a consistent final frost date.
For frost-sensitive transplants like tomato, basil and zinnia, it's essential to transplant them after your final frost. Keep in mind that soil takes longer to warm than air, so resist transplanting til nights are consistently above 50 F for optimum plant growth. Bring them out to harden off before Memorial Day, by all means, just be sure to bring in your tropical vegetables (tomato, pepper, eggplant, tomatillo, ground cherry) if night temperatures may fall below 50 F. Pepper and eggplant, especially, are prone to pouting if they experience such cool weather, even briefly. Less sensitive plants like cosmos and parsley won't mind if they're out in a night less than 50, as long as it's above freezing.
Additionally, any time you can plant just before a light rain, letting the rain gently soak in around the roots and surrounding soil, do it. Because that, friends, is the dream.
3. Fish Emulsion Makes All the Difference
It's really important to water your seedlings before transplanting them. This encourages their roots and accompanying soil to stay intact through the transplanting process. It also ensures that their roots will grow quickly, exploring new soil and accessing new nutrients.
Any water will do, but we always water our seedlings with diluted fish emulsion. It's a boost of immediately available macro- and micro-nutrients to inspire optimal, balanced growth. Neptune's Harvest is our go-to for fish emulsion. Made here in the Northeast, they up-cycle the by-catch of the fishing industry for their products. They're great people, and their products are exceptional.
Fish emulsion itself is a brown, very concentrated liquid that you'll need to dilute to use. One ounce to one gallon is the proportion to apply. Know that, in this case, more is not more: more concentrated dilutions may 'burn' your plants and will be more likely to attract raccoons and other scavengers to your garden. At the proper dilution, and only you will be attracted to the results.
If compost or worm castings are more easily available for you than fish emulsion, by all means make a tea to water your seedlings just prior to transplanting.
4. Break Up the Root-Bound
The key here is to avoid root-bound seedlings in every way you can. Root-bound seedlings are stressed seedlings, and stressed plants are less abundant and less delicious. The best ways to avoid root-bound seedlings are as follows:
Try as we might, we always seem to leave some seedlings in their cells a little too long and they become root-bound. As we transplant those, we gently break up their roots, encouraging them to explore the world outside their little box of roots once they're planted.
5. Great Root-to-Soil Contact
This final step is so vital. Once you've gone through all this work to grow your gorgeous seedlings, the icing on the cake is ensuring great root-to-soil contact. This helps them access more nutrients more quickly, encouraging healthy growth. As you bury the roots of your seedling, take care to not bury any of the stem, which will rot if exposed to too much direct soil. The final step is to place your hands palms down, one on each side of the plant and gently tamp the soil down around your freshly transplanted seedling. Pretend you're kneading bread for just three seconds. This helps reduce air pockets around the roots, increasing root-to-soil contact. With more nutrients more accessible, your seedling will thrive right away.
Petra Page-Mann believes each seed and each of us is in the world to change the world. She grew up on her father's garden, which sparked her passion, curiosity and love of food. This has led her all over the world studying seed, song and culture worth celebrating. In 2012, she founded Fruition Seeds to share the seeds, knowledge and inspiration gardeners need to be more successful in the Finger Lakes. If she’s not farming, she is singing, biking, snuggling her dogs, hunting mushrooms or sharing a feast with a friend.