The Best Way To Transplant Seedlings To The Garden

Expert advice on handling young seedlings being transplanted to larger containers or outdoor gardens.

May 10, 2017
transplanting into containers
Quim Roser/getty

Transplanting simply means moving a rooted plant from one place to another. If you prick out tiny parsley seedlings from a flat into individual pots, you’re transplanting. If you move cherry tomato plants from your windowsill into the garden, you’re transplanting. And if you decide to move the big forsythia to the backyard, you’re transplanting, too.

When handling seedlings, hold and move them by grasping a leaf between thumb and forefinger. Yanking up seedlings by their stems will damage roots. 

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

transplanting flowers into containers
Transplanting To Containers

If you start seeds in flats and you're into container gardening, transplant when seedlings are still very young. Watch for the emergence of the first pair of true leaves and transplant soon after. The choice of planting containers ranges from homemade newspaper cylinders to plastic cell packs and clay pots. Peat pots are a favorite of many gardeners, because the pots can be transplanted with the plant, but we recommend avoiding peat because of the unsustainable nature of the peat industry. Plastic and clay containers are reusable. 

Before you start, collect your transplanting supplies and put down a layer of newspaper to catch spills. Follow these steps:

Fill the containers with soil mix. Either buy bags of mix (be aware that these may contain synthetic chemical fertilizer) or make your own seed-starting mix by combining one part vermiculite or perlite with one part peat moss, milled sphagnum moss, coir, or well-screened compost. The depth of the soil depends on seedling size: Fill nearly to the top for small seedlings; start with only 1 inch of soil for large ones, since you fill the pots as you transplant.

Pour warm water onto the soil mix, and let it sit for an hour to soak in. Moist potting soil prevents seedling roots from drying out.

Related: How To Start Seeds

Carefully dig out either individual seedlings or small groups of seedlings. A Popsicle stick makes a good all-purpose tool for digging, lifting, and moving tiny plants. A tablespoon or narrow trowel works well for larger transplants.

Hold each seedling by one of the leaves, as shown, not by (or around) the stem: You could crush the tender stem, or if you grasp the stem tip, you could kill the growing point and ruin the seedling’s further growth.

For very young seedlings, poke small holes into the soil mix with a pencil. For larger seedlings, hold the plant in the pot while you fill in around the roots with soil. Firm the soil gently with your fingertips.

Related: 5 Reasons You Should Start Your Own Seeds Instead Of Buying Seedlings

Return the seedlings to the window, light rack, or cold frame. If seedlings wilt from the stress of transplanting, mist lightly with water and cover loosely with a sheet of plastic wrap. Keep them cool and out of direct sun for a day or two, them remove wrap and return to the light.

Keep soil lightly moist but not soggy by pouring water into the tray holding the containers. Feed regularly with a weak solution of water-soluble organic fertilizer.

As the plants grow, pinch or snip off any extra seedlings, leaving only the strongest one.

If you miscalculated the seed-starting date or if the weather turns nasty, you may need to transplant your plants again to larger containers so they won’t stop growing and become stunted. Roots pushing through drainage holes are a clue that it’s time to transplant.

Related: 7 Fruits And Vegetables You Can Grow In Hanging Baskets

transplanting vegetable plants
Transplanting To The Garden

Toughen your plants for outdoor growing conditions by hardening off. Two weeks before outdoor transplanting time, stop feeding and slow down on watering. About a week before you plan to plant out the seedlings, put them outdoors in a protected area, out of direct sun and wind. Leave them outdoors for only 1 hour at first, then 2 hours, then a morning, until they are used to a full day. Water frequently. 

Transplant on a cloudy or drizzly day or in early evening to spare transplants from the sun’s heat. Water the plants before you start. Dig a hole slightly wider than and of the same depth as the container. (Plant tomatoes deeper, so that roots form along the stem.)

If your transplants are in plastic or clay pots, turn the pots upside down and slide out the plants. Whack the pot with your trowel to dislodge stubborn ones. Plants in peat or paper pots can be planted pot and all.

Gently place the plant in the hole, and spread out roots of plants that aren’t in pots. Slit the sides of peat pots to open them up for better root penetration after planting. Stripping away the top rim of the pot above the soil line is also important, because if even a small piece of peat pot is exposed after transplanting, it will draw water from the soil surrounding the transplant’s roots, leaving the plant in danger of water stress.

Fill the hole and tamp with your hands, forming a shallow basin to collect water.

Slowly pour plenty of water—at least a quart—at the base of the transplant. Keep transplants well watered until they become established and start showing new growth.

transplanting a tree
Peter Muller/getty
Transplanting Large Plants

Sometimes a favorite tree or shrub gets too big for its place or is threatened by construction. Or maybe you just want to move a certain plant to a different spot in the landscape. If hard work doesn’t scare you off, consider transplanting.

Related: How (And When) To Prune Your Trees And Shrubs Properly