David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois
Yard & Garden
Transplant Survival Tips
You’ll need the right soil, light, temperature and moisture
Last month we looked at why starting your own transplants would pay off in the long run. Saving money is probably the biggest reason, as well as getting the plants you truly want.
Once the seeds are ordered and arrive, you’re ready to begin, provided you don’t start too early. There’s nothing worse than a plant ready to transplant in the garden five weeks before the conditions are ready for moving it.
The goal is to keep the baby plants indoors as little as possible. Most seeds are started six to eight weeks before they are set outside, though the seed packet may give you other information. You should tend to believe the packet for the correct information.
Seeds need a sterile, loose soil, as well as light, correct temperatures and moisture in order to do well. Mess up any of the four, and the seedling may topple over and die, resulting in money down the drain, but a smile on the face of the garden center manager.
Seeds need uniform moisture to germinate and grow. Part of the germination process involves absorbing water. It’s important the water supply is present during the entire germination process.
Too much water, however, can deplete the seeding medium of needed oxygen. Water only to maintain a moist soil, never soggy or saturated. Some will water the soil, allow it to drain and then cover it with plastic wrap until the seeds start germinating to prevent it from drying out. Make sure to remove the plastic as soon as the seeds start sprouting.
Once seeds have germinated and are growing, you might be able to reduce the amount of water needed. Do so carefully to avoid wilting the seedlings. Once wilted, most seedlings never recover. However, excess water will also kill the seedlings.
It’s a toss-up by professional growers, which is more important: temperature or light. Both are related and dependent on the other.
Soil temperature is crucial for seed germination. The ideal temperature is 75 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the air temperature for seeding should be 65 degrees to prevent damping off, a notorious disease that causes seedlings to turn black at ground level and flop over, just as you’re starting to swell up your chest with pride for your growing expertise. Nature can be brutal.
Setting the seed flat on top of the refrigerator can supply some of the bottom heat needed. However, don’t forget the seeds are there, and make sure you protect them from cats, who view the seed tray as a new litter box.
Once seeds have germinated, keep the air temperature on the cool side. In fact, lower temperatures usually produce a shorter, stockier and healthier transplant. Night temperatures can be, and in most cases should be, as low as 55 degrees. Day temperatures should not be above 65 degrees. This is really important. High temperatures produce tall, leggy plants that fall over quickly and don’t perform well outside.
Light is important for growth. Seedlings need at least 14 hours of bright light each day. Setting the plants in a south window helps, but temperatures may be too warm and produce vigorous but spindly growth. Move the plant back a few feet from the window if that happens.
Plants can be placed under lights. Make sure plants are close enough to receive the maximum benefit, but far enough away to prevent burning.
Plants should be placed no closer than 6 inches and no further than 12 inches from fluorescent bulbs. For incandescent types, keep plants 12 inches away, but closer than 24 inches. If you have plants in a bright window, turn them every few days so they don’t start leaning toward the light.
Some will even turn a fan on the transplant to produce a stockier plant. Make sure you keep the fan far enough away from the plants that it doesn’t dry out the soil or blow the plant over.
Finally, avoid fertilizing transplants indoors unless growing conditions are ideal. And since they’re in your home, the conditions are probably not.
David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.
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