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The Art of the Transplant

garden forkThere’s been a lot of finger crossing going on in my house this week. That’s because I transplanted a mass of overly mature beetroot and parsnip seedlings into new homes. Considering the appalling spring we’ve had, a surprising number of seed germinated but as hail, sleet and gale force winds continued well into early summer there was little chance to get into the garden to attend to the young seedlings. When finally I found a fine-weather day to go outside, they were 20cm high and over-due for thinning. The plants looked so healthy I couldn’t bring myself to compost the left-overs so decided to transplant them.

Transplanting any seedlings is a bit of an art but root crops are even trickier. Whatever kind of seedlings you’re working with, it’s important to prepare the ground ahead of time. Your ‘babies’ are going to need the very best of homes to move into and will be depending totally on you to help them through the early days of adjustment in their new abode. Your aim is to prevent them having to struggle in any way for survival; after all, it’s going to be a battle for them just to hold their own until they establish new roots.

The soil you’re going to pop them into needs to be well worked and fine. Both the beds or pots you’re taking the seedlings from and the ground you’re moving them into should be moist so that the small plants can quickly absorb moisture without effort. So put on the sprinkler early in the day or douse the plants from a watering can. Don’t take the plants from their original site or begin transplanting them until the heat has gone out of the day (alternatively, work on the task on a cool, overcast day). Avoid transplanting in the wind or the leaves of the young plants will quickly dry out.

Rather than tug the seedlings out of the ground (and, in the case of root crops, risk breaking the tap root), gently fork them up with a hand tool. Avoid touching the roots of seedlings; instead, hold them gently by their leaves. In the soil of their new bed, make a good sized hole with a dibber (a stick the width of the handle of a garden fork’s, and with a sharpened end). Lower the seedling into the hole taking special care (if it’s a root crop seedling) that the tap root goes straight down without bending. The base of the first set of leaves should be level with the soil (not under it). Crumble fine soil into the hole. Firm gently around the base of the seedling and, when a row of transplanting has been completed, gently water all the small plants.

There’s no knowing what the next day will bring in terms of weather so if it is windy, provide shelter and if it’s hot, provide shade in the form of shade cloth or bracken or fern leaves. Don’t be in a hurry to remove this. Rather, wait until you see that the plants have recovered before taking it away. Don’t be disheartened if your transplanted seedlings look downcast and wilted for the first t 3-4 days after being transplanted. All going well, they will gradually pick themselves up off the ground and although two or three leaves on larger seedlings may actually die off, the plants will gradually begin to grow. When they do, don’t leave them to ‘fend for themselves but water them daily. After a week, give them a feed of liquid manure. The less they have to do for themselves for the first 2-3 weeks the better.

If the seedlings you are transplanting have been cosseted in a green house or the warmth of a garden centre shelter, it pays to harden them off before transplanting them into the garden. Hardening off simply means taking them out of shelter during daylight hours and popping them back into shelter during the cool of the evening. Do this for 4-5 days and the plants will experience less shock when the go out permanently into the big wide world.

If transplanting sounds terribly complicated, it’s not. And although it may be fiddly, it’s no more work than sowing a new row of seed (and re-sowing if it fails to germinate) and then thinning. As I look out the window at my transplanted beetroot and parsnip, it’s heartening to see that, even though they were larger than they should have been when I moved them into new homes, they appear to be settling in well. I doubt their roots will be as good as the plants grown in situ, but I guarantee no one but me will know the difference!