Transplant Shock

A recent telephone call to my sister caught her setting zucchini transplants in her garden. “Transplanting zucchini?” I queried. “Have some faith in nature.” Transplants on sale this time of year too often entice gardeners to set out set them out in the garden rather than drop seeds into furrows.Marigold 6-pack

I pointed out that not every plant likes to be transplanted. Tomato plants yanked out of the soil will resume growth in a few days if their roots are covered with moist dirt. Roots will sprout even if just a stem is in moist soil. But the roots of plants like corn, poppies, melons, cucumbers, and squashes (zucchini included) resent disturbance. Carrots, parsnips, and many other root crops also transplant poorly. Their taproots become the harvested roots. If bent or broken while young, forked, rather than straight, smooth carrots and parsnips result.

This is not to say that it is impossible to successfully transplant squash, poppies, and the like. Any plant can be transplanted if enough care is taken not to damage the roots. A plant doesn’t even know it has been moved when a large enough ball of soil is carried along with the roots. (To paraphrase Archimedes, “Give me a big enough shovel and I can transplant any plant.”) Enormous trees can be, and are, relocated if taken with sufficient roots (and money).

My sister told me that her zucchini plants were growing in plastic cell packs. If the roots were not yet crowding each other against the plastic, and if the plants were gently slid out of their containers, the transplants will survive. I’ve even heard of gardeners even transplanting carrots — very carefully, no doubt.

Is It Worth It?

Six pack of peas

Pea transplants for sale

Many vegetables could be easily transplanted, yet aren’t worth the effort. A friend transplanted peas one year. Granted, his peas were a foot high indoors when mine were just breaking through the ground out in the garden. But how many pea transplants can a gardener care for? I grow about sixty feet of double rows of peas in my garden, from which I expect about twelve pounds of peas. Each pea plant, though, yields only about a quarter of an ounce of peas. Who has enough space and time to sow, water, then transplant even two dozen pea plants for the paltry six ounces of peas those plants would yield?

Generally, plants whose seeds are sown closely spaced in the garden are not worth transplanting. In the flower garden, this would include alyssum, portulaca, and pot marigolds (though I admit to starting a few alyssum plants indoors so they would spread and flower sooner).

In addition to peas, some other vegetables not worth growing as transplants include spinach, mustard, and beans. Black Seeded Simpson and other leaf lettuces (sometimes referred to as “cutting lettuces”) are generally sown directly in the ground. While the plants are still small, I’ll run a knife near ground level every couple of feet or so slicing off their tops. For the next salad, I’ll choose new groups of plants to cut. Within a couple of weeks, plants are again ready for harvest.

Lettuce seedlings

Bibb lettuce transplants

Heading lettuces such as iceberg, bibb, and romaine are worth transplanting because each plant needs space in order to head up well. Alternatively, heading lettuce could be sown directly in the garden, then thinned to the appropriate spacing.

(I list dates for sowing and transplanting various vegetables, according to your region, in my book Weedless Gardening, available from the usual sources or directly from me here.)

Exceptions to Prove the Rule

“Trust nature,” I told my sister. “Sow seeds on the correct planting date in good garden soil, and they’ll germinate. Save transplanting efforts for vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, which need to be started early indoors in order to ripen their fruits in a reasonable amount of time. Or broccoli and cabbage, because individual plants yield a substantial amount to eat. Tomato, broccoli, and cabbage plants don’t object to being transplanted, and not too many transplants are required since they are set a couple of feet or more apart in the garden.”

Seeds which are particularly finicky or valuable (due either to scarcity or cost) also are worth growing initially in pots. Although hardy cyclamens (Cyclamen heredifolium) do self-seed under ideal conditions, I wanted to greatly increase my holdings. Cyclamen flower in a crannied wallThey’re a little finicky to sprout, so I collected seeds from one of my plants and planted them in a seed flat, where I could watch and nurture them individually, then transplant them to individual pots. Here it is, three years later, and later this summer, delicate pink flowers will hover like small butterflies above each of the ten fat tubers.

Sure, it may be worthwhile to start a few corn plants indoors, because fresh sweet corn is one of the ultimate gustatory pleasures of the vegetable garden. But is zucchini that toothsome?

Tomato Sowing, and More

Sowing tomatoes was the big moment in the garden last week. The sowing was actually indoors and it was on April 1st, which is 6 weeks before the “average date of the last killing frost,” or, to those in the know, ADLKF.
I’m finicky about what varieties to grow because good tomatoes just waste garden space, never getting eaten if great-tasting tomatoes, are also to be had. But look at tomato variety descriptions in seed catalogues and on seed packets, and you’d think that every tomato variety tastes great and is worth growing. 
I read those descriptors carefully to narrow the field. For starters, I avoid any tomato listed as “determinate.” Determinate varieties grow by branching repeatedly because each stem ends in a cluster of fruits. The plants are compact and ripen their fruits over a short season, which appeals to commercial growers. Downsides are that their lower leaf to fruit ratio results in poor flavor and concentrated ripening causes more stress and, hence, susceptibility to diseases.
So I grow only “indeterminate” varieties, whose clusters of fruits hang from along their ever elongating (indeterminate in length) stems. These are the varieties that can be pruned for staking.
Short of tasting a particular variety of tomato, the next descriptor that would guide me is whether or not it’s a “potato leaf” variety. Yes, their leaves look like those of potatoes (a close relative), that is, thicker and with smooth, rather than serrated edges. Still, a lot of great-tasting tomatoes are not potato-leaved.
Pink, heart-shaped tomatoes also have the edge on flavor. Same goes for tomatoes that don’t ripen to a

Two great tomatoes: Cherokee Purple & Amish Paste

uniform red color. Or tomatoes that don’t ripen to perfectly round orbs. I also happen to like dark colored — so-called “black” — varieties. You could almost say that the uglier the tomato (by commercial standards) the better the flavor. Which is not to say that every tomato variety bearing ugly fruits is great-tasting; but it’s a start.

A man (or woman, or child) can grow only so many tomatoes. This year I narrowed my lineup to 16 varieties, some old favorites and a few new ones, the new ones chosen on the basis of being indeterminate, perhaps potato-leaved, etc.
The old favorites are Belgian Giant, Anna Russian (good cooked and fresh), San Marzano (good cooked, bad fresh), Cherokee Purple, Blue Beech (good fresh and with unique, good flavor cooked), Amish Paste (good

Some of last year’s tomatoes

cooked and fresh), Rose de Berne, Valencia (orange fruit), and Nepal. Also two cherry tomatoes, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight. The latter was my favorite decades ago and I’m curious now how it compares with the incomparable Sungold.

New varieties for this year are Brandywine Black, Black Prince, Cherokee Chocolate, German Giant, and Black Krim.
Whew! That’s a lotta’ tomatoes.
Even with a greenhouse, indoor planting space is at a premium. Besides those 16 varieties of tomatoes, with plans for at least 4 plants of each variety, I have dozens of other vegetable seedlings — broccoli, lettuce, kale, Brussels sprouts, pepper, eggplant, and more — growing or in the works. And multiple varieties of each.
I’m managing all this by starting out sowing seeds in what look like miniature fields. These “fields” are 4 by 6 inch seed flats, filled with potting soil into which I press 4 furrows with my MFT (my “mini-furrowing tool”). MFT is a 4 by 6 piece of plywood with a handle on its upper side and four, spaced out, 1/4 inch diameter dowels glued to its underside. Into the furrows impressed by the dowels I sprinkle the seeds, cover the furrows, and then smooth the “field” with a similar plywood rectangle lacking the dowel underbelly. The seedlings, when they sprout, look like miniature fields of plants.
Once sprouts unfold their second sets of leaves, they’re ready to be “pricked out” and given their own home. That home could be a pot or a cell in a plastic tray of multiple cells. Sliding a small, blunt knife into the potting soil beneath a seedling lets me gingerly grab its leaves and lift it out with roots intact to be dropped

A lot of seedlings in a little space.

into a waiting hole I’ve dibbled with my cone shaped “dibbler.” As each seedling is in place I tuck potting soil in around its roots. Without delay, once a tray of seedlings has been pricked out, I spray a gentle but thorough mist of water to moisten the soil and settle the little sprouts into place without knocking them down.

Seeds and very young sprouts spend one or more weeks — four in the case of slow-germinating and growing celery — in the seed flats, and then another four weeks or so in their cells. That translates to 50 or more seedling in an area 4 by 6 inches for a couple of weeks and then about 20 older seedlings growing up in a space of about a square foot for the next four weeks.
All this not only squeezes oodles of seedlings into relatively small space; it also keeps me intimate with them in their youth. I’ll be planting tomato seedlings out in the garden one week after the ADLKF.