Tender Transplanting

Topical gardening tips and easy solutions

| April/May 2004

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.

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