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Stalking Healthy Veggie Starts

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Start with the best plants you can find to ensure success

The person who dreamed up the idea of growing and selling vegetable transplants should win a medal. Really, think about it: What could be handier for a busy gardener? As you realize you’ve missed the deadline to sow spring seeds, take comfort—there are many conscientious people whose livelihood depends on sowing veggie seeds at the appropriate time!  You’ll reap the benefits of their work at local  nurseries or at  a plant sale this spring.

It is a saving grace for the new millennium gardener’s lifestyle. You may be too busy, tired or spring-feverish to chart out a vegetable sowing schedule. Fortunately, your friendly neighborhood plant group or nursery will happily share theirs with you (for a small fee, most likely).

Healthy transplants can yield a ton of tomatoes, ample artichokes, or a bevy of basil for the gardener who missed that window of opportunity. Just know what to look for and how to introduce your starts to your garden.

Stalking the Healthy Veggie Start
First, you’ll want to begin your search at a local horticulture group’s plant sale (Seattle Tilth’s Edible Plant Sale, for instance, in May at the Good Shepherd Center at 50th and Sunnyside Ave. in Seattle) or a neighborhood garden store. There’s a much better chance that these plants receive more TLC than a large chain store, where they mass-produce plants plied with nitrogen and heat to look good on the sales rack. Once you get such plants home, they will most likely not produce to the fullest.

After choosing a quality source for your plant shopping, be a discerning transplant buyer. You may already know not to judge a book by its cover; well, you also should not judge a plant by its lush top growth! Health, in a transplant’s case, is more than just a pretty flower or tender leaves—in fact, these are indicators of “soft” growth in a young start, which does not bode well for plant stamina.

Look instead for a stocky plant with a thick stem and deep green foliage—this plant will survive and thrive in the great outdoors. The rootball is equally indicative of health: it should not be pot-bound or have an undeveloped root system. A happy rootball has many visible root tips and a few long roots wrapped around the outside of the pot. (Those of you who choose to explore the  rootball before buying may not mention Northwest Garden News if you’re caught in the act.)

Beyond The Pot
Your healthy transplants will soon become kin to your garden soil, loosing their roots below, unfurling leaves and fruit above, content to yield you a bumper crop. Here are some transplanting techniques to provide painless planting from pot to plot:

1. Harden them off. Gradually introduce your transplants to the outdoors so they can develop tolerance to temperature fluctuations and increasing sunlight. (If you’re buying your veggie starts at a plant sale, the avid gardeners who sponsor the sale may have already done this for you! Ask the salesperson for confirmation.) A slow transition from sheltered shade to indirect elements to direct elements (after a week) is ideal. Use a cold frame if you have one, and lift the lid wider as the days progress.

2. Do your transplanting on a cloudy day or in the evening to lessen shock. Plants give off water by day and retain it by night, so planting them later in the day helps them hold vital moisture needed to combat wilting and stress.

3. Bury the rootball deeply, where it will have access to moist soil. This is not to say you should bury your lettuce start up to mid-leaf; in general, plants with long stems—tomatoes, peppers, and brassicas (cabbage family), for example—can be buried an inch or so up their stem, to stimulate root growth. If your plant is root-bound, it will benefit from having its cotyledon leaves pinched off. (These are the first leaves that appear after germination, and they eventually fall off as the plant matures.) This pinching will conserve the plant’s energy.

4. Water the soil around the plant (not the plant itself) immediately after planting. Be extra generous with water for your transplants. Now that you’ve adopted, cared for, and weaned these wonderful vegetable plants, you must now eat them! You now can reap what you did not sow—and like it!

NWGN archive published April 1999.

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