Photo by Dwight Sipler (CC BY 2.0).


Growing your own transplants

Story by Lisa D. Martin

Gardeners are constantly looking for new and different techniques to try. One that is not necessarily new in general, but might be a new concept to novice gardeners, is growing vegetable transplants. Growing your own transplants gives you a good head start on the vegetable garden, particularly vegetable crops that are more susceptible to frost. With the often-erratic Arkansas weather, hedging one’s bets is not really a bad idea. While our average last frost is in early April, it has been as late as early May, so starting seeds indoors can be very beneficial. Growing transplants can also extend the growing season a bit by giving the gardener an earlier start – the plants are already up and growing by the time they are planted into the ground. But one of the best reasons for growing your own vegetable transplants is that it gives you the opportunity to try new and different varieties. Seed catalogs abound with new varieties every year. Growing transplants allows a gardener to order seeds they’ve never tried and give them a test run to see how they like them. 

Photo by Konstantine Gagua (CC BY 4.0).
Seedlings must be hardened off before going into the garden to acclimate them to outdoor conditions. Photo by Konstantine Gagua (CC BY 4.0).

Many of the most popular garden vegetables are rather easily to start from seed. Tomatoes, onions, lettuce, peppers, cabbage, and cauliflower all transplant rather easily. Other favorites, such as beans, corn, and watermelon, are more difficult to transplant, but gardeners can experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. 

Growing your own transplants can have a steep learning curve, but by following good gardening practices, gardeners can learn. Growing media is very important. The media should be loose to allow oxygen to reach the developing roots and porous to allow good drainage. Vermiculite, perlite, and peat are all sterile growing media available at nearly any local nursery or garden center. Some gardeners prefer to mix their own using 1 part loamy soil, 1 part sand, and 1 part peat moss.

Using containers that provide excellent drainage is equally important. As with the growing media, there are all types of containers on the market that are great for growing seeds. Peat pots, plastic flats, peat pellets, traditional pots, grow bags, and standard plastic cell trays can all be found at any nursery, garden center, or co-op. Some gardeners adhere to the theory of “reduce, reuse, recycle” and use products from around the house. Egg cartons, paper cups, and yogurt cartons are all great for starting seeds. They must be cleaned out first and have drainage holes poked in them, but after that, they are an excellent and inexpensive way to go. 

Photo by Dwight Sipler (CC BY 2.0).
Vegetables and herbs, such as the basil shown here, can be started indoors in flats or seed trays and then moved out into the garden. Photo by Dwight Sipler (CC BY 2.0).

When it’s time to get started, fill the containers to approximately ½ inch from the top. It should be packed firm enough to support the seed, but loose enough to allow the roots to push through. Tiny seeds can be broadcast on the surface, while larger seeds should be planted and lightly covered. Once the transplants reach approximately 2 inches, thin so they’re 2-3 inches apart to ensure they have ample room to grow. Transplants should be kept moist, but not too wet, and need to be fertilized regularly. A general fertilizer, such as 13-13-13, can be used in small amounts.

Most vegetable transplants are ready to transition to the garden in four to six weeks. Before planting them in the ground, the seedlings need be hardened off in order to acclimate them to outdoor conditions. Beginning 10 days to two weeks before planting into the garden, they should be set outside for two or three hours in shady spot protected from harsh winds. Gradually increase the time spent outside every day. After a week or so, leave them outside overnight, as long as the temperature won’t be below 50 F. After spending a couple of nights outside, they should be ready to go in the garden. 

Preparing the garden for the transplants will reduce transplant shock and the stress of moving. Soil should be loosened and any necessary soil amendments – hopefully according to soil test recommendations – added and incorporated. Once the soil is ready, dig holes that are only slightly larger than the transplants’ root balls. 

Handle the transplants gently. Be careful not to crush or bruise the roots while removing the plant from its container and placing it into the hole. Gently hold the stem of the transplant and turn the container on its side and tap it to get the transplant out and then set the transplant gently into the hole. Gently refill the hole and pack it enough so that the transplant is in an upright position. Good root-to-soil contact is important, but the soil should not be too firmly packed or the roots will not be able to grow. Transplants should be watered immediately after planting to reduce the likelihood of transplant shock. 

Photo by Terri Bateman (CC0 1.0 Universal).
Older tomato seedlings ready to be planted in the garden. Photo by Terri Bateman (CC0 1.0 Universal).

Experienced gardeners always have tricks and tips. Some advise transplanting on an overcast, drizzly day to reduce the shock of moving to their new outdoor environment. If it is a really bright, sunny day, some gardeners recommend covering the newly transplanted seedlings with an overturned basket or similar object to block some of the direct sunlight. 

Like many other aspects of gardening, learning how to grow vegetables transplants from seed can be a very rewarding experience. Once you learn how to grow your own vegetable transplants, you can grow ornamental transplants as well. Some gardeners even utilize their transplanting skills to earn money – starting seeds and raising vegetables to sell at farmers’ markets and other venues. 

With the ever-increasing demand for healthy food, organic produce, and fresh, homegrown vegetables, knowing how to start your own vegetable transplants may not only help feed your family, but just might bring in some extra income.

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