Mother Earth Living

Tender Transplanting

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

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

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

Barbara Pleasant lives in the mountains of western North
Carolina, and is the author of
Garden Stone.

  • Published on Apr 1, 2004
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