The art of transplanting

Garden Life
Tips from Sarah the Gardener

More often than not, a garden plant starts out in its formative days and weeks in a pot. There are, of course, exceptions like carrots and parsnips which prefer to be sown directly into the soil. This ensures their tap root stays straight and intent on growing down as deep as it can. There are others that don’t seem to mind either way as long as the conditions are right.

Corn and beans seem to prefer being sown directly in the soil as long as the ground isn’t too wet and the soil temperatures are comfortably above 12ᵒC for the corn and 18ᵒC for the beans. That being said they do just fine when they get a cosy start in a warm sunny spot indoors.

For the most part, summer vegetables begin life indoors. Some amongst thousands of others on the bench of a climate-controlled commercial greenhouse and others as a handful of seedlings being nurtured into life on a sunny kitchen windowsill. Either way, they will have to go through a few steps to make sure they adjusted well to life on the outside.
If you are growing from seed at home, the first stage is generally germinating the seed in a low nutrient seed raising mix. Seeds have no need for nutrient rich soils because they have everything they need to get started. If the soil is too rich, it can harm the tender young roots. Once the seedling develops its true leaves, the situation changes and the plant begins to seek out nutrients. You can compare this to weaning a young baby from milk to solids, a slow and gentle process.

The first transplant should be made shortly after the true leaves come out, these are the ones that are recognisable as the shape the plant will have all its life. The first set of leaves are seed leaves and are often more a reflection of the seed. Gently prise the delicate tiny plant from the soil taking care not to damage the roots. It is best to hold it by the leaves as these are replaceable and holding it by the stem can cause irreparable long-term damage. Carefully pop it into a prepared hole in a small container full of a fine potting mix at the same level in the soil that it came from. Gently firm the soil around it and give it a good watering to settle it in. A seaweed tonic can help reduce transplant shock and can promote healthy root growth. Make sure to label it well since it is easy to forget which plant is which.

If all goes well, the plant will appreciate and thrive in the new environment quickly growing to fill the space. Before you know it, roots will appear and soon enough they will attempt to burst out of the bottom, this is a good sign that it is time to transplant again. Returning to the “weaning a small child” analogy, now you can introduce more complex solids. Use a normal potting mix with its lumps and bumps and maybe mix in some compost to introduce some of the micro organisms they are likely to meet in the garden. They aren’t as fragile at this stage, but you still need to be gentle and, as before, it is still important to avoid touching the stem.

For most plants, is it important for them to be planted in the new soil at the same level they were in the pot they just came from. The cell structure above ground is different from the cell structure below ground and so plunging the stem too deep can cause the cells who prefer to be above ground to rot. There are, of course, exceptions to everything. Tomatoes, for example, can be buried deeply. You can remove the first and even second set of leaves, bury them up to their necks and they will love it. New roots will even grow from the stems. You are also encouraged to bury potato plants as they grow up to a height of 30 cm and they don’t seem to mind at all! In fact, they prefer it.


It is important to make this transition slowly from small pots to larger pots as the plant grows, not only to gradually improve their diet, but also restricting the pot size means you end up with strong, stocky roots. If you just went straight to large pots the roots would run freely to the edges and become thin and leggy like stems reaching for the light.

This whole process should take about 6 – 8 weeks. But the time will come when the final transplant into the garden is next. But this also needs to proceed with caution. If you have a seedling from a garden centre or something you have nurtured indoors for weeks, you need to acclimatise it to the conditions out in your garden to avoid transplant shock.

About a week before you want to plant outside, give the plants some time in a sheltered sunny spot. The next day repeat the outdoor excursion but increase their exposure, allow them to feel the breeze and leave them out a little longer each day. Eventually and gradually they will experience the full conditions of the spot they will be planted in and even have a couple of overnight stays. You will need to be vigilant and watch for frosts and protect them from slugs and snails, but when the time comes, you will have plants that barely notice they have moved from the indoors to outside.

Plants shoved from one environment to another with little care or concern will take time to adjust to their new surroundings and growth may slow down. Plants that have been transplanted and hardened off will thrive from the very first day and will go on to reward you with a bountiful harvest.