In the Garden:
New England
April, 2006
Regional Report

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Plant tomato seedlings deeply to allow roots to grow along the stems for more vigorous plants.

Transplanting Time

Transplanting isn't rocket science but quite a bit of research is conducted to gain new insights into what encourages a plant to put out new roots, settle into a new spot, and generally weather the experience with minimum shock. Since we all get stuck in our old patterns and ways of doing things, it can help to take a fresh look at this most basic of gardening routines. After all, it can mean life or death to your plants.

In our short gardening season in New England, spring planting frenzy is a common malady, and when we get a window of time, we might be tempted to disregard the signs that it might not be the right time for transplanting -- from the plants' point of view, that is. Well, maybe you're not guilty of this but I sure am. One year I got fed up with rain every weekend so I set new plants into wet soil and hoped for the best. What I got was soil that turned to concrete because working it while it was wet ruined the structure. Lesson learned.

To test the moisture content of the soil, squeeze a handful and then open your hand. If the soil stays in a tight clump, it's too wet. If it totally crumbles apart, it's too dry and needs watering and retesting after a day or so. It's ready when it breaks apart into loose clumps.

In Preparation
Give seedlings that you've started yourself some transplanting practice. Before moving them outside, transplant them into larger containers, generally when they have two sets of true leaves (the first set are not true leaves). This process checks their growth just a bit to encourage sturdy growth.

Before moving them outside, acclimate your plants to the outdoors over a period of a week or so by leaving them outside in the shade for a few hours a day, then leaving them out overnight, then leaving them in the sun for increasing amounts of time.

Moving Day
Once they have spent some days and nights outdoors, it's time to get them in the ground. The biggest risk to plants is moisture loss during the transplanting process. The smaller the root mass and the more fibrous the roots, the more quickly the roots can be damaged and dry out. So choose a cloudy day or late afternoon or a day before a gentle rain is predicted, and water the plants well beforehand.

Remove a seedling from the flat or pot once the new hole is ready, and hold it by the rootball (safest) or a couple of leaves (next safest). Don't hold a plant by the stem because if the stem is damaged, the plant won't survive, however it can grow new leaves if they are damaged in the process.

There's nothing a cutworm likes better than a tender, succulent seedling. To foil these larvae (which gnaw the stem at soil level), surround each stem with a collar of cardboard or newspaper when planting. Slice the cardboard center of a paper towel roll into 2- to 3-inch-wide pieces. Slip the rootball through the collar and plant it so the collar extends just above and just below the soil level. If you need to cut the collar to get it around a seedling that's already planted, just tape it back together. Or you can use 3-inch-wide strips of newspaper wrapped loosely around the stems and extending under the soil, or anything else that will form a barrier during the early stages. Cutworms generally leave plants alone when the stems become larger and tougher.

You've no doubt heard the recommendation to tease apart the roots when transplanting, but recent research suggests that this can cause unnecessary setback to young plants, especially annuals. These plants have such a short life that it's not worth the inevitable root damage that occurs when you try to untangle them. So leave the rootballs intact and gently set the plants into their new holes. (Perennials, trees, and shrubs, however, do benefit from having tightly wound roots loosened at planting time.)

Don't wait too long. Annual transplants generally bounce back more quickly if they are transplanted before they are large enough to begin fruiting or flowering, both of which consume a lot of a plant's energy. So bypass the plants in full flower and choose the shorter ones in bud. For plants you grow yourself, don't start them too soon.

Tomato Tips
Tomatoes benefit from a different technique at transplant time. Set them deeply into the soil to encourage rooting along the stems, which makes the plants more robust. Dig a trench about 4 inches deep and lay a plant horizontally in the trench, gently curving the stem so the top two sets of leaves are above the soil. Fill in with soil. The stem will grow straight upwards. Another technique is to dig a deep hole and bury the plant up to the top two sets of leaves.

For those who like to experiment, try this very curious recommendation for encouraging sturdier growth and resistance to disease in tomatoes. Get some 18-gauge copper wire and cut it into pieces 2 to 3 inches long. Once your transplants are in the ground, push a piece of wire sideways through the base of each tomato stem so it sticks out on either side. Or use wires on half of your plants and keep the rest of your plants as a control group so you can compare the effects. Even with the most routine of garden tasks, there's always something new to learn!


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