It is a beautiful day today, and for once I didn't have plans, so it was transplant time at my house. Transplanting is tricky business. If you put baby plants outside too young they may be wilted by too warm sunshine. The not so sturdy stems may be blown over by a stiff breeze or beaten down by a spring shower. If it is too damp the tender stems may mold or rot. Most seed packets will come with instructions on when it is safe to put baby plants outside. In the case of lettuces and bok choi, they can be planted directly outside, or to get a little jump, you can plant them inside a few weeks before the last frost (I like to wait a week or so after that, they always tell you it the last frost, then it gets chilly again and makes life difficult for seedlings) and transplant them when you would normally be able to plant outside. Technically I'm a bit late, but we have had a lot of rain and even some storms (see "what the HAIL?") and several very cool nights so now that the forecast looks good I decided it was finally time.
First, you don't want to transplant most things until they have their first set of real leaves. That means the plant will actually have 4 leaves, two that came from the seed, and two that have gotten their nutrients from the budding roots.
Next, you will want to harden off your plants. This means gradually exposing them to outdoor weather so it isn't such a shock to the tender plants. I had set the lettuce, mescalune mix, nasturtiums and bok choi out under the cold frame, covered with a piece of white row cover to protect them from the mid-day sun, at the beginning of the week, then part of the week in a partially open cold frame, so they were all ready for full exposure. For things like tomatoes and peppers that go out when the days are already hot, it may be advisable to start with only a few hours on an open window sill, then a morning in a protected place, then an afternoon in a shaded place, then somewhere with a little more sun, and finally outside all day. It is important to make sure that the dirt doesn't dry out while the plant is hardening off, of course you have to also make sure you don't over water and cause rot.
When you are ready to put the plants in the ground, wet the soil in the pot/ starter flat down very well, this makes it easier to get them out. Dig yourself a little hole that is fairly deep. Sprinkle some slow release fertilizer in the bottom of the hole (check your bag to see how much they recommend). Then, using a butter knife or teaspoon scoop the plants up. I know that there are fancy seedling shovels, but they cost more than a the quarter that mismatched silverware costs at a thrift store, and besides, how many people do you know who have silver plated garden shovels?! If there is more than one plant in a cell and you are having trouble separating them without destroying the roots, you can dip them in water to rinse the dirt off which helps the roots untangle.
Lower the little plant into the hole so that the first set of leaves is about even with the ground. Make sure that the root is pointing fairly reasonably down, if they are sideways the plant may have trouble standing up or the root system may be too close to the surface and not be as supportive to the plant. Push soil into the hole and pat it lightly around the stem. Repeat for all your seedlings. The back of your seed pack will tell you how far apart you should put the baby plants. It is listed as 'plant' or 'thin to.'
When you get all your seedlings in the ground you will want to give them each a drink. Be VERY CAREFUL. You don't want to dump water directly on the plant as you run the risk of knocking it over and breaking the stem. I usually use a small can or cup and hold my hand over the plant, directing the water around the stem where I patted the soil down.
If your babies are in an especially sunny spot, it advisable to cover them with floating row cover. This is light weight white fabric that is suspended above the baby plants (most people use half hoops, I don't have any, so I have it wrapped around 2x6 boards at either end and supported in the center with several sticks, not super pretty, but it should work). The fabric helps keep out some pests (when done with the hoops, not my way, mine is not fully enclosed) and shades the tender plants from the hot afternoon sun or driving rain.
This same procedure applies if you are thinning direct sow plants (ones that are planted directly in the ground). If you have to pull some of the seedlings up to get proper spacing, you can do so carefully, then replant those somewhere else. Or, you can toss the spares into the compost pile to contribute to next years batch of compost.
I started 2 rectangular take-out food trays full of lettuce mixes. Who knew so many baby plants could fit in so little space! I have so much baby lettuce that that I could fill 2 of my 3 beds. This is not really a problem though. Since I can't put my tomatoes, peppers, cucumber or squash in yet, and my flowers are still small, I can keep all that space from sitting there empty by putting in an early season lettuce. By the time it gets warm enough that the greens bolt or wilt from heat, the other plants will be filled out nicely.
My lettuce mix and nicisoie mixes should have a variety of green colors and a little red. But to make them decorative I also added some nasturtiums. The variety I got puts out flowers that range from yellow to orange to red with variegated foliage for even more color. AND they are edible! According to the description they are "lightly spicy." I can't wait to have friends over for dinner and present them with a fresh picked salad with edible flowers mixed in! Besides being edible and pretty, they also serve the purpose of row markers. In order to demarcate where one greens mix begins and another ends I added a few flowers. It isn't super important that I can tell the greens blends apart, but since I want to know if I want to re-order a certain mix for next year, I like to keep them separate.
Now I have to keep an eye on the weather report to watch out for exceptionally hot days or chances of storms so I can properly protect the young plants. I also like to go out in the morning and in the evening to double check that they did not get to wet or too dry and to ensure that none of the little creatures that live in the neighborhood decided to make a snack out of them!
I can almost taste that first salad of baby greens. Maybe my radishes and onions will be ready by then. Hopefully soon after I will be able to enjoy baby carrots and sugar snap peas as well! MMMM homegrown dinners are about to begin!