SARAH BROWNING For the Lincoln Journal Star
Transplants are the way to go for tomatoes, peppers, and dozens of other vegetables, as well as many of the annual flowers common in Nebraska gardens.
Transplants give long-harvested plants a head start before they are brought into the garden and a chance to produce before the fall frosts. Annual flowers grown from transplants start blooming weeks earlier than if a gardener had planted them from seed.
Tips for Success
The first key to success in transplanting is selecting healthy young plants and handling them properly. Grafts should be stocky and compact with healthy looking foliage. Green foliage should be a rich dark green, not pale or yellow, and free of spots that might indicate disease. Check the undersides of the leaves for signs of insects.
Colored foliage – such as that of Coleus – should be free of discoloration or signs of disease. Withered foliage can mean the plant needs water, but it can also be a sign of root rot or other disease problems that you don’t want to bring into your garden!
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While it’s nice to see annuals or perennials in bloom, the best transplants are those without flowers or fruit. Immediately after planting, transplants need to focus on building a large, strong root system. If they’ve already switched from vegetative growth to flower or fruit production, they may be able to do so just as easily and may struggle through the season with an inadequate root system.
Avoid extremely large grafts. They often suffer major transplant shock when eventually planted in the home garden, growing very slowly or shooting (flowering prematurely) or even dying.
The shock of walking straight out of a sheltered greenhouse into the garden can stop plants from growing or even kill them. Gradual transplanting into the garden gives them a chance to gradually acclimate to outdoor conditions.
Start by placing the flats outside in a sheltered area for a few hours on warm, sunny days and reducing watering slightly. Add several days to the time the plants spend outdoors each day. This process, known as hardening, reduces the transplant shock that plants suffer when placed in the garden.
Plants purchased from a patio table at your local garden center are likely already hardened, saving you time and effort.
Handle the plants carefully when transplanting to avoid damaging their roots and stems. All plants should be removed from their nursery prior to planting, even if it was a peat pot. If the peat pot absolutely cannot be removed, water it thoroughly before planting and make sure that the rim of the pot is completely covered with soil when planting. Leaving the lip of the pot exposed will direct water away from the roots of the transplant.
Plants in multi-compartment containers should be well watered and carefully removed from their cells before planting. When plant roots heavily surround the edge of the root ball, the plant is root bound or pot bound. Pull off the lowest part of the root ball and gently spread the roots. The goal is to encourage the roots to develop more growth and not continue to grow in a tightly compressed circle, which could stunt plant growth.
Put the plants in the garden soil quickly so that their roots don’t have a chance to dry out. All transplants should be watered after transplanting so the dry soil around them doesn’t draw water away from their roots.
care in the early season
Often, simply sticking the plants in the ground and watering them is not enough – newly planted plants may need protection from insects, frost and wind.
All grafts are subject to wind damage. Commercial plant covers or caps, windbreaks from evergreen cuttings, and milk jugs with cut-out bottoms can be used to prevent wind from flattening newly planted grafts.
Even the healthiest of grafts with the best handling will suffer some root damage when transplanted. Until they establish their roots, the tops will not grow. To encourage good recovery and growth of the grafts, give the plants a dose of fertilizer when transplanting. Dissolve 1 to 2 tablespoons of an all-purpose fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, in 1 gallon of water. Give each plant 1 to 2 cups of the starter fertilizer to give them a good start.
Cutworms are hairless caterpillars that cut off seedlings and transplants at or just below the soil surface. They are particularly fond of pepper plants, although they can damage other plants as well. A 3 to 4 inch wide strip of lightweight cardboard formed into a circle and stuck into the soil around each plant is usually all that is needed for protection.
The average last frost for Lancaster County typically occurs between April 29 and May 12 – check your average last frost date at https://go.unl.edu/springfrost.
Setting garden planting dates based on soil temperatures is a great way to get your plants off to a good start. Cold-weather crops like broccoli, cabbage, and other members of the cabbage family can tolerate cooler soil and air temperatures and even light frosts, so can be planted earlier. Check your soil temperature, including a daily reading and a weekly average from the Nebraska State Climate Office, https://cropwatch.unl.edu/soiltemperature.
Frost protection may be required when planting warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and peppers early, or when there is a threat of frost after the usual frost-free date. Warm-weather crops should not be planted until the soil has warmed to 65 degrees and the average date of the last frost has passed. Before that, they tend to grow poorly, if at all, so little is gained and plants can be lost if planted too early.
Warming the soil with plastic mulch and protecting tender plants with milk jugs or commercial plant covers can lengthen the season and allow warm-weather plants to get into the garden before the frost-free date. Every grower must weigh the time, effort, and expense involved against the desire to have the first red tomato on the block, and make their decision accordingly.
Sarah Browning is an extension educator at Nebraska Extension. To ask a question or reach her, call 402-441-7180 or email email@example.com or 444 Cherrycreek Road, Lincoln, NE 68528.