On the surface, planting seedlings is pretty straightforward: simply remove them from their container and plant them in the ground. But taking extra care really helps. Here's how to get the little plants get off to a good start:
Avoid stressing plants out by settling them into the ground when it is cool rather than during the heat of the day. Choose an overcast day or plan on transplanting the seedlings in the evening. Fully hydrated seedlings transplant better, so it is a good idea to water the seedlings really well a few hours before you transplant them into soil that is as damp, not dry.
Many seedlings are now sold in biodegradable containers. Before you transplant them, be sure to peel off the biodegradable container so the plants’ roots can reach out into the soil.
The roots of container-grown plants often become root bound—growing in a tightly wound, tangled circle. It is important to gently loosen up the roots prior to planting so that the roots will grow out into the soil rather than continuing to circle around themselves.
Sometimes a single container contains a clump of several seedlings. This is especially true of lettuce, parsley, dill, cilantro, and basil seedlings. Planting the clump without separating the individual plants results in stunted growth. To separate the plants, gently work apart the root ball with your fingers and tease out the individual seedlings. Try hard to keep their small root systems as intact as possible.
Aim to plant the seedlings in the garden at the same depth they were growing in their container. Dig a hole that is as deep as the root ball and three times as wide. Sprinkle a bit of granulated organic fertilizer into the bottom of the hole to help give the plants a jumpstart. Handle the seedling by its roots or leaves—not its tender stem. Set it in the center of the hole and backfill it with soil, gently firming the soil around the roots. Water the plants in with a watering can and keep the soil consistently moist after transplanting.
Willi Galloway is the author of Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, and she writes about organic vegetable gardening and seasonal cooking on her blog, DigginFood.