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The Fastest Way to Transplant Volunteer Seedlings with Minimum Root Disturbance

lettuce seedling

It’s always a great idea to let vegetables such as lettuce to go to seed, because a single plant can produce hundreds of seeds, resulting in lettuce seedlings popping up all around the garden. Plants that grow on their own, that weren’t intentionally planted, are known as volunteers, and volunteer vegetable seedlings are basically free plants.

If we leave areas of bare soil in the garden unplanted, nature will attempt to fill those spaces with whatever is blowing in the wind to protect the soil and prevent erosion. Odds are that whatever starts growing there may not be our first choice of plants, they may be what some people call ‘weeds’.

But what if the seeds blowing in the wind were premium lettuce varieties?

Avoiding Seedling Transplant Shock

If we’re lucky to find volunteer vegetable seedlings growing in our garden, our first thoughts are usually to move them to a better location.

Seedlings need to be reasonably well-developed before they can be transplanted, otherwise they might not survive the transplant shock or any roaming pests that might wander past and eat them to the ground.

When gardeners sow seeds, they usually wait until the seedlings produce their first true leaves before transplanting them. It’s usually better to wait a bit longer until seedlings grow a few more true leaves, they’re much more resilient by then, and establish themselves more easily after transplanting.

When transplanting seedlings, don’t cut their roots, ‘tickle’ them to loosen then up, tear them apart, wash them or remove the growing medium from from, as root damage is the biggest cause of transplant shock. If they’re seedlings in a punnet or pot, very gently pull them apart to separate them for planting.

Ideally, we should aim to cause as little root disturbance as possible when transplanting any plants, whether they’re tiny seedlings or large fruit trees. There are ways to deal with spiralling roots that can strangle the rootballs in mature plants, see the instructions in the article – Should You Tease Out Plant Roots When Transplanting?

We can minimise root disturbance when digging up seedlings from the garden by using a larger implement to lift out as much of the surrounding soil around the roots as possible. This works well if there are no other plants close by that might get damaged.

Inevitably, volunteer seedlings tend to pop up between other plants. How do we relocate them, lifting out as much of the soil around their roots without damaging the root systems of nearby plants?

How to Transplant Seedlings Using a Bulb Planter

The tool that allows surgical precision in seedling transplanting is the humble bulb planter. It’s a metal cylinder with a handle, which is pushed into the soil and pulled back up to remove a plug of soil to make a perfect hole in the ground, with a lever which releases the soil inside it.

Bulb planter are used by growers of ornamental flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, tulips and liliums for example. These tools are very fast and efficient for the arduous task of planting dozens of bulb in the ground at a very specific depth.

They’re quite useful for productive gardens too, I use bulb planters when planting potatoes, and they make the job effortless, but where they really shine is in their ability to make perfectly uniform holes in the soil, and fill them with perfectly fitting plugs of soil also. It was this capability of the the tool that led me to experiment with using bulb planters to transplant seedlings, and I found that they work brilliantly, and what’s even more amazing is that they do such a clean job that it’s very difficult to tell a seedling was transplanted as there’s no visible soil disturbance!.

In the following sequence of photos, I will demonstrate how to use a bulb planter to transplant a lettuce seedling.

Step 1 – Make the hole for the seedling to be planted into

Find a good spot in the garden to transplant the seedling to, an empty space that will be its new home.

In case you’re wondering, the reason the soil looks like this is in the photo is because a layer of compost was recently added!

Get the bulb planter!

Push the bulb planter all the way into the soil, twisting it left and right while pushing down.

Lift the bulb planter back out, twisting left to right while pulling it up if that makes it easier withdraw it with its plug of soil.

A perfectly cut hole in the soil ready to receive a new seedling!

Step 2 – Empty the plug of soil in the bulb planter into a bucket

Squeeze the bulb planter lever to release the soil into a bucket. We need to use this soil to fill the hole that will be left when the seedling is removed from the ground, so don’t toss it out.

Step 3 – Remove seedling from the soil

Carefully guide the leaves of the seedling into the bulb planter, ensuring that all leaves are sitting inside, and the plant is centred within the tool so that all the roots end up inside the plug of soil that will be removed from the ground.

Slowly and carefully push the bulb planter all the way into the soil, twisting it left and right while pushing down to cut more easily through the soil.

Lift the seedling out of the ground by gently twisting left and right while pulling upwards to ease it out.

What we now have is just like a potted advanced seedling, with all the soil around its roots still in place.

Step 4 – Transplant the seedling into its new location

Take the seedling in the bulb planter to the location where the first hole was made, the spot chosen to be the seedling’s new home where it will be transplanted to.

Carefully guide the bulb planter carrying the seedling into the hole, gently twisting the bulb planter left to right while pushing down to align it nice and straight.

With the seedling fully seated in the hole, squeeze the bulb planter lever to release the soil with the seedling in it, while gently lifting and twisting side by side. Do this slowly to avoid pulling the seedling back out again.

A perfectly transplanted seedling with no visible soil disturbance!

Step 5 – Water the seedling

Watering seedlings after transplanting helps settle the soil, remove any air pockets, and gives plants a well-deserved drink.

In the horticulture industry, we like to add some seaweed extract to the water in a watering can, as it contains root growth stimulants which help the plant establish itself faster.

Step 6 – Refill the first hole

Remember the soil that we emptied into the bucket in the second step? We need to empty this into the first hole we made, because we don’t want to leave holes in the garden!

Lightly tap the filled hole level with the bulb planter so it all looks tidy once again, and that’s it!

Bulb planters come in different sizes, they vary more by length, but the longer ones are a little bit wider. I purchased two different sizes as they’re relatively inexpensive, and the decent quality ones last forever, mine are over ten year old. Don’t get the really cheap ones as the always break at the top rivet which allows the tool to hinge to release the soil, that’s the weakest point.

I’ve used a smaller sized bulb planter here, and it easily cuts deep enough into the soil to lift out all the roots of volunteer lettuce seedlings and any other annual vegetables that might pop up in the garden. As long as the roots of the seedling can be contained within the volume of the bulb planter without being cut off, then it’s the right sized garden tool for the task. Admittedly, I’ve used it for planting ornamental flowering bulbs too.

It’s handy having the larger, longer sized bulb planter for transplanting more advanced seedlings, and young dandelions which have really long tap roots. The larger capacity even works for planting quite large potatoes. The larger bulb planter can easily do the task of the smaller one simply by not pushing it as deep into the soil.

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