Whether you've purchased a seedling from a garden centre, or have one that you germinated yourself, you're going to need to move that plant into its new home. Read on to learn how to transplant seedlings into containers or garden beds.
If you've started your own seeds, and you've got yourself some baby seedlings, congratulations! Getting seeds to germinate and grow can be challenging, so if you've managed to raise your plants this far, that's awesome!
While you may have already transplanted your seedling from a tiny container to a bigger one (called "potting on"), this article is going to discuss the next step of moving that seedling into a big container or a garden bed.
If you're starting with baby plants from a garden centre, that's great too. You've saved yourself a lot of work! Again, we'll be looking at moving this plant into a larger pot or into a garden bed.
Step 1: Plan When You'll Transplant Your Seedlings
Before you transplant your seedlings into a container that will be kept outside, or directly into the ground, make sure that the temperatures are safe for your plants.
Frost can kill seedlings and chilly temperatures may damage them. Check your frost dates, planting calendars, and local weather forecasts before proceeding.
Step 2: Prepare Your Plants for the Move
It's very important to harden off your plants before moving them permanently outside. This process helps the seedlings to acclimatize to the outdoor environment, which helps to prevent your plant from going into shock.
Hardening off should begin about a week before your last frost date.
Step 3: Choose Your Container
Each type of pot/container has its own features and benefits, so pick a pot that not only looks nice but suits your needs as well.
Also, some pots have a "self-watering" feature which creates a reservoir at the bottom of the pot. This can be handy if you don't always have time to water your plants.
Types of Container Materials
Plastic containers are lightweight, which is great if you want to be able to move them around. They also tend to be the most affordable! My local dollar store carries decorative plastic pots in a variety of sizes, and they're just a few dollars each. The downside of plastic is that is can retain a lot of moisture (not great when it rains) and they can become quite hot.
Terracotta pots are perfect for that classic garden look, and they'll last for ages (unless you drop it). Terracotta "breaths", so it doesn't get as hot as plastic, but I've found that the pots can dry out pretty quickly. Glazed ceramic pots are beautiful, and have similar benefits, but they don't generally have drainage holes.
Wooden containers have a rustic look but they break down over time. Similar to terracotta, wood doesn't get as hot as plastic, but it does dry out faster than plastic.
Tip: If your container has holes, you can put your plant directly into it because the water will be able to drain out. This protects the roots from drowning. If your container doesn't have holes, it's considered a "pot cover", meaning you're meant to put the plant into something with holes, and then put that container into the pot cover. Pot covers are for decorative purposes and help to keep water off your floor/deck/patio. If you want to turn your pot cover into a pot, you'll need to drill holes into the bottom first.
Determining the Size of Container You Need
First, you need to consider how much space you have to work with. For example, if your container garden is going to be on your balcony, you need to consider how many plants you're going to grow and how much space you have to work with.
Second, you need to consider what you're planting. A basil plant can do well in a lightweight medium pot, but a tomato plant will likely do better in a large heavier pot because the plant comes quite large and heavy with fruit.
Generally speaking, it's easier to maintain plants in medium to large pots, because they have more room for root growth, and because they can hold more soil they don't dry out as quickly.
Tip: If you’re re-using an old pot, it’s recommended that you scrub them out with an earth-friendly soap and water before planting in them. This way you’re starting with a clean slate, with no remnants of insects or disease etc.
Step 4: Choose Your Soil
Whenever you're buying soil for containers, you want to look for "potting soil", not "garden soil".
Potting soil is formulated specifically for containers. It's usually lighter than garden soil and provides better drainage and airflow for roots.
Garden soil heavier and can contain too much clay for containers, which may cause the soil to retain too much water (and drown your roots).
If you find that your plants usually dry out very quickly, you can try using a moisture-retaining potting soil. This specialty soil has sphagnum peat moss, coir, and a wetting agent to help regulate moisture.
Not all plants want to be in moist soil though. Some tropicals, including Meyer lemon trees, prefer well-drained loamy soil (like cactus soil).
Another thing to consider is organic potting soil. If growing organic edible plants is important to you, then be sure to purchase soil and nutrients that specifically say "organic".
Step 5: Choose Your Fertilizer
I've used two different kinds of fertilizer over the years: slow release and water-soluble.
I prefer the slow-release nutrients because it's the lazy way to feed your plants. You mix granules into the soil when potting your plant, and they will slowly release nutrients to your plant over a period of time (usually about 3 months).
Water-soluble fertilizers can give you faster results, but they usually have to be applied every 7-14 days. These nutrients can be purchased as a powder that you mix into your watering can, or as a pre-mixed liquid that attaches to your hose.
Now, technically, you're supposed to use a water-soluble starter fertilizer that is high in phosphorus for your seedlings, as it promotes stronger root growth.
I'm lazy and just mix my slow-release miracle grow into the soil, and that seems to work just fine for me. Keep in mind though, I only add this fertilizer when I'm moving my seedlings into their forever home. By this time, they've grown quite a bit and have been hardened off. I would imagine that this fertilizer would burn the smaller seedlings if I added it during the "potting on" process.
How to Transplant Seedlings into a Pot
Try to do your potting on a day that isn't overly hot or windy, and avoid the midday sun, so your seedlings don't go into shock. If you're having consistently extremely hot days, do you potting indoors and take your plants outside in the evening. This way they will have time to settle overnight.
Here are the steps you'll need to take to pot your edible plant:
- Fill your container with potting mix, leaving a gap from the top (maybe 1-3 inches depending on the size of the pot). You need this space so the container won’t overflow when you water it.
- If you're using a fertilizer add it to the soil according to the package directions.
- Dig the hole for your plant. The hole should generally be twice the size of the root ball, but you have to be careful not to make the hole too deep.
- If roots are compacted, gently loosen the root ball with your fingers. I usually only have to do this for seedlings that have come from a garden centre, but sometimes I'll get a tight root ball with home-germinated seedlings too.
- Place the plant in the soil and mound the soil around it. Press down on the soil with your hands to gently tamp it into place.
- Water the plant (gently!) until water drains out of the holes in your container. This will help the roots to settle.
- Place in a sunny or shady spot, depending on the needs of your plant. Check the tag to see if it needs full sun, part sun or shade. For example, Basil needs 6-8 hours of sun to thrive.
- If overnight temperatures are going to be low, cover the seedlings with clear plastic or garden fleece, or bring it inside if you don't have any other options. Remove any coverings the next morning.
The nice thing about planting in containers is that you can move them around, so if you find your plant isn't doing well in a certain spot, you can try moving it to another area.
How to Transplant Seedlings into a Garden Bed
The soil in your garden bed can become compacted over winter, so it's a good idea to loosen the soil before you start planting in spring. I like to top up my garden with fresh soil as well.
Again, plan to transplant your seedlings on a that isn't overly hot or windy, and avoid the midday sun.
- Add your fertilizer to the soil, if you're using one, according to the package instructions.
- Dig the hole twice the size of the root ball of your seedling, being careful not to make the hole too deep.
- If roots are tight and compacted, gently loosen the root ball of the plant with your fingers.
- Place the seedling in the soil and mound the soil around it. Press down on the soil around the plant gently with your hands to tamp the soil into place.
- Gently soak the soil around the newly transplanted seedling. This will help to settle the roots.
- If overnight temperatures are going to be low, cover the seedlings with clear plastic or garden fleece. Just be sure to remove the covering the next morning.
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