Q: When I set out new plants in my garden, they often look wilted and miserable for days, even though I water them. Are there ways to keep this from happening?
A: Helping plants make a smooth transition to your garden requires a little time and patience, but the results are worth it. You can begin by shopping early because young plants transplant more easily than old ones. Roots often become crowded when plants grow in small containers too long, which is the best reason to buy plants soon after they become available.
Most herbs are grown in greenhouses, where air movement is limited to the light breeze from an electric fan, and sunlight is filtered through plastic or glass. In this peaceful environment, stem cells grow in symmetrical order and chloroplasts are arranged in thin layers. Air movement, such as wind, triggers the stem cells to grow in more of a spiral pattern, which makes them much tougher. Equally amazing, leaves bulk up on chloroplasts when they are exposed to bright light.
These changes are what gardeners are talking about when they speak of “hardening off.” The process doesn’t happen overnight, but greenhouse-grown herbs can be ready for the garden in only a week if you let them get used to the outside world a little at a time. For the first three days, set plants outside in a sunny spot that’s sheltered from strong wind during the day, and bring them in at night. After three days, set them on the ground near where they will be planted and leave them there around the clock.
Throughout this adjustment period, make sure the soil in the containers never dries out and cover the plants with an old blanket, cardboard box or other protective cover if the weather turns extremely cold or windy. Then, when the big day finally comes, drench the plants with a water-soluble plant food to get them in tip-top shape for transplanting.
The next trick is to cover the plants with shade covers for two days or so after transplanting so they get a break from the sun and wind. I use empty flowerpots or small cardboard boxes held in place with a brick. In addition to protecting plants from stressful elements, the covers keep out curious critters. Because shade covers keep the soil around the plants moist, I don’t worry that they might dry out during this critical period.
Shade covers are also a huge help should you decide to separate herbs when you discover several plants growing together in a container. With herbs grown from seed, such as basil, chives and summer savory, you often will find three or more individuals in a small pot. If transplanted together, the plants would be crowded, so you’re doing them a favor by separating them into individuals or smaller clumps as you set them out. I seldom try to separate plants that are growing together so tightly that there is less than an inch between stems, but I do look for pots that contain two or three widely spaced individuals so I can double or triple my fun.
In addition to using shade covers, the other trick to separating seedlings is to pull on the roots rather than the stems. Use your fingers to break the roots apart, the same way you might break apart a dinner roll. Then set the little plants in moist soil right away, pop a shade cover over them and leave them alone for two days.
Annuals, such as dill, chervil and coriander, grow better from seeds sown directly in the garden. Part of the problem with transplanting these is that they grow very quickly. By the time seedlings make it to stores, they are on the verge of blooming. But do not be afraid to transplant parsley or fennel, which are surprisingly rugged. They are no more difficult to handle than other herbs, provided you harden them off for a week, plump them up with nutrient-enriched water and then use shade covers for a few days after setting them out. Indeed, every herb you plant will thank you for the little extra effort given to tender transplanting.
Barbara Pleasant lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, and is the author of Garden Stone.