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Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening – Part 5, How to Plant Seedlings

punnet of lettuce seedlings

How to Plant Seedling in Six Easy Steps

Once we’ve selected the appropriate seedlings that are in season, it’s seedling planting time!

In this article we’ll cover the fundamentals of seedling planting, the procedure is very simple and much easier than sowing seeds.

If you’re a beginner to food gardening, I recommend starting off using seedlings. You’re guaranteed a much easier success and a more satisfying first gardening experience!

Once you’re happy with your gardening when growing from seedlings, then it’s a good time to start producing your own seedlings from seed. Growing from seed is much cheaper, and a large number of plants can be produced this way.

That said, starting with seedlings is easier, it’s more fun, a crop can be harvested 4-6 weeks earlier, because that’s how long it takes to grow seedlings from seed.

The procedure for planting seedlings into the garden, in into containers is fairly simple, only takes a few minutes, and is outlined in the six quick steps below.

1. Prepare the Soil

Add organic matter (compost) to improve soil structure, to make the soil more friable – The term friable soil refers to loose soil that the plant roots can push through the soil more easily. The open soil structure increases soil aeration, allowing water and air to pass through the soil more easily to reach plant roots.

Add manure to the soil to increase soil fertility. Plants need food to grow, and by feeding the soil, you feed the plants.

Use twice as much compost as manure and mix it well through the soil, aiming for a mix of no more than 25% compost/manure mix to 75% soil. Too much will cause the soil to sink when the compost breaks down.

For more information on this step, see Step 2 – Preparing the Soil for Growing Food.

2. Remove Seedlings from Punnets, Plug-trays or Pots

The best time to plant seedlings is either in the morning or late evening when the weather is milder. When seedlings are removed from their pots, their delicate roots can dry out from harsh sun or hot winds, so it’s best to work in a shady spot when unpotting them for planting.

If seedling are in a punnet, remove the pot by placing fingers on top of the potting medium, being careful not to crush the seedlings, and invert the punnet, so the seedling are hanging down, with their roots facing upward and resting in the hand.

A punnet of seedlings usually contains 6-8 individual seedlings, sometimes only 4 for larger plants. These seedlings have to be separated from each other before planting.

Pull apart the seedlings carefully to minimise root damage and retain as much of the rootball of each seedling as possible.

When seedlings are planted in two rows, it’s easier to carefully pull off the two seedlings from the end of the punnet together, and then separate them from each other.

Some punnets don’t contain rows of individual seedlings, but rows of clumps of seedlings, where each clump contains two or more seedlings bunched together? How do we separate these?

It’s best not to attempt to separate every single seedling from a seedling clump, as the roots get damaged too much, which leads to transplant shock and a lower seedling survival rate. Maybe divide each clump into two at the most. The idea with clumps of seedlings in a punnet is that the clump is planted, and when the seedlings grow, the weaker ones are removed.

Note – when planting seedlings from a punnet, if only a few seedlings are needed for planting, remove the number required only, without disturbing the roots of the rest of the seedling, and when finished, put the spare seedlings back into the punnet.

Seedling punnet with two seedlings removed

Advanced seedlings usually come in a pot containing one single large seedling,. To remove these from their pots, very gently squeeze the sides of the pot, rotate it and repeat till all sides are done. This will release the pot from the rootball (for both round or square pots),

Next, invert the pot, while supporting the stem close to the rootball, and gently ‘massage’ the pot while very gently pulling on the stem.

Advanced seedling in a pot, with only one plant to a pot there is no need to separate its roots from those of other plants.

For seedlings in tubes or trays (which resemble a series of rectangular tubes in rows), angle the tube or seedling tray so you can see the large drainage holes at the bottom.

Next, gently push the seedling rootball out with a thin stick or seed dibber, and slide out the seedling into the palm of the hand. Any long object with a blunt end that can fit through the drainage holes of the pot will do.

Note – don’t use a very thin stick or anything pointed, as it won’t push the plant out, but penetrate the rootball and damage the plant roots.

Forestry tube seedlings can be pushed out with a wide stick or seed dibber that can fit through the drainage holes.

Note – When removing seedlings from their containers, do not tease out the roots or interfere with them too much to minimise transplant shock as the roots are very delicate.

2. Position Seedlings in Garden Bed

Lay the seedlings where they will be planted to get the spacing right.

Don’t lay out too many seedlings all at once because if they’re left too long exposed to sun and wind, the seedlings will wilt and their roots will be damaged.

Only take out as much as you need to plant a single row at the most. The faster the seedlings go from container to their planting location, the less potential for them to be stressed. The planting process doesn’t need to be rushed, it’s actually done at quite a relaxed pace, but the seedlings shouldn’t be left sitting exposed for more than a few minutes after they’re removed from their containers.

Note, seedling spacing is usually listed on seedling punnet labels and seed packets.

Seedlings laid out in their planting positions, ready to be planted.

4. Make Hole for Planting

Use a garden hand trowel ( a small, hand-held garden spade), or narrow planting trowel to pull away the soil to create a hole for the seedling.

First, push the hand trowel straight down into the soil as deep as you can go.

Push hand trowel vertically down into the soil to the full length of the blade.

Next, pull the hand trowel to one side, towards the side that holds the soil, to open up a nice deep planting hole.

Pulling the trowel to one side once it is inserted into the soil allows a neat planting hole to be opened up.

5. Put Seedling in Planting Hole

While holding the hole open with the hand trowel, gently lower the seedling into the planting hole, ensuring that any long hanging roots reach as far into the bottom of the hole as possible.

Use the hand trowel to hold the planting hole in the soil open, this males it easier to lower the seedling in, especially in very sandy or loose soils.

Lower the seedling into the planting hole so that it sits at exactly the same level that it was in the container. Don’t plant deeper or shallower.

Once the seedling is in place, push the soil into the hole to fill it using the garden trowel, and then very gently firm down the soil around the seedling with your fingers to seat the seedling into the soil. Don’t press too hard, as you don’t want to compress the soil. The soil needs to be fairly loose so that the roots can push though the soil more easily as they grow.

Gently firming down the soil around the seedling helps seat it down so it doesn’t get pulled out accidentally.

6. Water in Newly Planted Seedlings

Water the seedlings to settle the soil around their roots and remove any large air spaces.

Use a watering can with a watering rose on the end, or a watering hose attachment that waters much like a gentle shower, as the seedlings are quite delicate. Too much water pressure might wash them out or bury them in wet soil, so go easy on them when watering.

I like to add some seaweed extract into the water as it contains root growth stimulants, plant hormones know as cytokinins, which help the plants establish much better.

Once the seedling is watered in, it’s roots can grow deeper into the soil in their search for water and nutrients, to fuel the plants growth!

Water seedlings frequently to keep the soil moist until they establish and are better able to look after themselves. Water daily on hot days and in summer, water less often in milder weather.

In the next article – Part 6, How to Protect Seedlings from Pests, we’ll look at how to protect our seedlings from insect and animal pests, to ensure they grow into strong healthy plants that we can eventually harvest.

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