Excerpt from the Popular Garden Series magabook Vegetable Gardens with permission from its publisher, BowTie magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. Purchase Vegetable Gardens here.
While growing vegetables from seeds can be especially rewarding, transplants might be the best option for most new gardeners. “If you’re a first-time gardener, I suggest you plant transplants — also known as seedlings — first, and don’t start with seeds,” Annie Spiegelman, author of Talking Dirt: The Dirt Diva’s Down-to-Earth Guide to Organic Gardening says. “Seeds can be a little trickier and they need to be babied, so if you’re a busy bee, stick with seedlings first.”
Christy Wilhelmi of Los Angeles-based Gardenerd.com also recommends that new gardeners start with vegetable transplants until they get the hang of growing vegetables. “It saves about six to eight weeks of time and skips over that period of time when plants are most vulnerable,” she says.
In addition to saving time, transplants can lengthen your vegetable plant harvest season, because they don’t have to be planted at a specific time during the season. “By putting in new transplants every couple of weeks and planning your garden space accordingly, you always will have fresh produce throughout the season because, together, some of the plants in your garden will always be in the peak of their life cycle,” Master Gardener Nancy Bottomley says. “You are likely to enjoy fresh vegetables earlier in the season and for a steady amount of time.”
Buying Vegetable Plants
When choosing transplants, Wilhelmi recommends buying organic ones as well as stocky vegetable plants with strong stems, free of yellow leaves and evidence of pests. “The whole point of buying a transplant is to get a head start, so buying the Charlie Brown Christmas tree won’t accomplish that,” she says. “Also, buy vegetable transplants that don’t have flowers or fruit on them. Plants that already have fruit are focusing their energy on fruit production, not root production. You want to put a plant in the ground that starts seeding out strong roots. If you buy a plant with fruit or flowers, prune them off first to allow for strong root development.”
Pay attention to which vegetable plants are in season before shopping for transplants. “Sometimes nurseries will tempt you with plants that are slightly out of season, but planting out-of-season varieties will result in weak plants vulnerable to pests and diseases,” Katie Boeh of Victory Garden Farms says. “In addition, it can be tempting to pick the biggest plant that you see, but often the size of the plant is directly related to how long it has been in the pot.”
A bigger vegetable plant might have been growing in its pot for too long and can become root-bound or stressed, Boeh says. “Once a plant is stressed, it might never recover; at best it will probably be an uphill battle,” she says. “Avoid plants that look overly big for their pots, and check that roots are not emerging from the bottom or bulging from the sides of the pot.”
Planting Vegetable Transplants
After you’ve selected healthy vegetable seedlings and brought them to your vegetable garden spot, make sure to transplant them correctly. When you’re ready to begin planting, Spiegelman says to submerge each transplant in a bucket of water until the air bubbles stop, then squeeze the pot to loosen the root ball. Slide your fingers on either side of the stem across the soil surface, then flip out the plant into your hand. Unless you’re transplanting squash, cucumbers or melons, which don’t like their roots disturbed, tease the roots apart slightly and bury them up to the same soil level as the original pot. Spiegelman waters transplanted seedlings immediately with kelp emulsion, “which helps reduce transplant shock and provides a broad spectrum of nutrients to the plant,” she says. “Let the watering settle the soil rather than compressing it too firmly. You can add more soil as it sinks.”
After transplanting, “keep an eye out for pests that like the chew on new seedlings,” Spiegelman says. Some gardeners protect their vegetable plants until they’re well-established by purchasing a row cover — a light cloth that protects crops from sun, frost and bugs. Snails and slug also “love toy chew on baby plants,” Spiegelman adds. She says Sluggo — a snail bait that is safe for the environment — is a good option to deter them.
Just as you would do with vegetable seedlings that started in your kitchen window, give your transplants time to get used to the outdoor temperature and sunlight. “Plants can get sunburned,” says Jos Zamzow, a Master Gardener and vice president of Dr. JimZ Secret Formula natural fertilizer and other products for soils and gardens. “When you are transplanting tomatoes or peppers, put up a shingle or piece of wood to shade them for a day or two. Just as people without a suntan cannot withstand suddenly spending 10 hours on the beach, neither can plants withstand a sudden change in sunlight. Even if the temperature is only 65 degrees Fahrenheit, the plants are not ready for it.”
Whether you decide to start with vegetable seeds or transplants, growing a vegetable garden offers a challenging adventure with a tasty reward at its end. Enjoy the fruits of your labor!