Soil and water

Start your garden off right with healthy transplants – Syracuse Journal-Democrat

Sarah Browning, extension educator

Transplants are the way to go with tomatoes, peppers and dozens of other vegetables, as well as many common annual flowers in Nebraska gardens. Transplants give long-season crops a head start before they are put into the garden and a chance to produce before the fall frost. Annual flowers grown from transplants begin blooming weeks earlier than they would if a gardener had planted them from seed.

tips for success

The first key to successful transplants is selecting healthy young plants and handling them properly. Transplants 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 may indicate disease. Check the undersides of the leaves for signs of insects.

Colored foliage – as on coleus, for example – should be free of discoloration or signs of disease. Wilted foliage can mean the plant needs water, but it can also be a sign of root rot or other disease issues that you don’t want to introduce to your garden!

While it’s nice to see flowering annuals or perennials, the best transplants are those without flowers or fruit. Immediately after planting, transplants should focus on establishing a large and strong root system. If they have already transitioned from vegetative growth to flower or fruit production, they may be able to do so just as easily and may struggle throughout the season with an inadequate root system.

Avoid extremely large grafts. They often experience more transplant shock when they are finally planted in the home garden and grow very slowly or bolt (flower prematurely) or even die.

Hardening off

The shock of moving directly from a sheltered greenhouse to the garden can stunt the growth of plants or even kill them. Facilitating garden transplants in stages gives them a chance to gradually get used to outdoor conditions.

Start by placing the apartments outside in a sheltered area for a few hours on hot, sunny days and cut back on watering somewhat. Increase the time plants are outdoors each day for several days. This process, called hardening, reduces the amount of transplant shock the plants experience when set up in the garden. Plants purchased from an outdoor table at your local garden center are likely already hardened off, saving you time and effort.


When transplanting, handle the plants with care to avoid damaging their roots and stems. All plants should be removed from their growing container before planting, even if it is a peat pot. If the peat pot cannot be removed at all, soak it thoroughly before planting and make sure that once planted the rim of the pot is completely covered with soil. If the lip of the pot is left exposed, it will drain water from the roots of the graft.

Plants in multi-compartment containers should be well watered before planting and carefully removed from their cells. If the roots of the plants strongly surround the edge of the root ball, the plant is bound to the roots or to the pot. Remove the bottom part of the root ball and gently spread out 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.

Get plants into garden soil quickly so their roots don’t have a chance to dry out. All transplants should be watered after transplanting so that the dry soil around them does not draw water away from their roots. Early season care

Early season care

Often it is not enough to simply plant the plants in soil and water – newly installed transplants may need protection from insects, frost and wind. All grafts are prone to wind damage. Commercial plant covers or hats, evergreen pruning windbreaks, and milk jugs with the bottoms cut out can be used to prevent the wind from flattening newly established transplants.

Even the healthiest grafts with the best handling will suffer root damage during transplantation. Until they establish their roots, the tops will not grow. To promote good transplant recovery and growth, give the plants a dose of fertilizer at the time of transplanting. Dissolve 1 to 2 tablespoons of a general-purpose fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, in 1 gallon of water. Give each plant 1-2 cups of starter fertilizer to help them get off to a good start.

Cutworms are hairless caterpillars that cut seedlings and grafts at or just below the soil surface. They are particularly fond of pepper plants, although they can also damage other plants. A strip of lightweight cardboard 3 to 4 inches wide formed in a circle and pushed into the ground around each plant is usually all that is needed to protect it.

Protection against cold temperatures

The average last frost for Lancaster County typically occurs between April 29 and May 12 – check your average last frost date,

Basing garden planting dates on soil temperature is a good way to get your plants off to a good start. Cool weather crops such as broccoli, cabbage and other members of the cabbage family will tolerate cooler soil and air temperatures and even light frost and therefore can be planted earlier. Check your soil temperature, including daily reading and a weekly average from the Nebraska State Climate Bureau,

Frost protection may be necessary if warm weather crops such as tomatoes and peppers are planted early or if frost threatens after the usual frost-free date. Warm weather crops should not be planted until the soil has warmed to 65 degrees and the average last frost date has passed. They usually grow poorly, if at all, before then, so little is gained and plants can be lost if planted too early. Warming the soil with plastic mulch and protecting tender crops with milk jugs or commercial ground covers can extend the season and allow warm weather crops to enter the garden before the frost-free date. Every gardener must balance the time, effort and expense involved against the desire to have the first red tomato on the block and make their decision accordingly.

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Is there a lawn and gardening topic you would like to learn more about? Sarah Browning is an extension educator with Nebraska Extension and can be reached by phone 402 441-7180, by mail at 444 Cherrycreek Road, Lincoln, NE 68528: or by email [email protected]