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Transplanting tips for getting the summer garden growing – Fairbanks Daily News

FAIRBANKS — I do two sets of transplanting, one into the greenhouse and one, a week or two later, into the garden. The unheated greenhouse has been registering more than 90 degrees during the day and about 53 degrees at night, so this weekend I will be filling it with tomatoes, bell peppers, cukes, eggplant and one guaranteed-to-mature-in-cold-climates watermelon plant.

I actually began the greenhouse transplanting 10 days ago, by starting the hardening off process. My warm garage produces good seedlings, but they are a bit wimpy. Even though the greenhouse is a protected shelter, they need toughening up before I put them around the clock into a place with longer hours of sunlight and warmer temperatures in the daytime and cooler temperatures at night.

I start by putting the seedlings on wagons that I pull outdoors, the first day for only about two hours and in the shade. It is important to shelter them from the wind, so I have clear garden umbrellas that fit over the wagons; before those I draped plastic over saw horses and shoved the wagons under the tents. Each day I increase the amount of time they spend outdoors and by the third day I don’t put them in a shaded area at all. Since these guys are all going into the greenhouse, I use plastic for the entire hardening off process, but when I do this with seedlings going into the garden, after a few days I remove the plastic so that they become accustomed to the wind. I check water needs daily because between the elements and the fact that the seedlings are still growing, the containers dry out quickly.

I do know what a pain this is. When I had a regular job, I would start mid-week after I returned home from work. Two hours on Wednesday and increasing it an hour per day meant that by Saturday I could leave them out for a full day and for 24 hours by Monday. If you can’t manage a week, at least do a weekend’s worth of hardening off.

The actual process of setting my seedlings into the soil is routine, and pretty much the same for garden or greenhouse. I start by thoroughly soaking any seedlings I am going to transplant that day because it makes it easier to pry them out of their containers.

While the plants are drinking water, I dig my holes. Some plants have extensive root systems, so need much deeper and wider holes than flowers or vegetables with shallower roots. The ideal is a hole wide enough that the roots can be gently spread out and deep enough that the plant will end up at the same soil depth it was in its seedling home, plus about an inch. If you willy-nilly thrust a plant down into a hole, you can stunt or kill off plants that need to have their growth nubs exposed. I always use the example of strawberries, because their growth crowns are so visible — see the little area of what looks like bunched up leaves? If you bury that, no strawberries.

Indeterminate tomatoes are an exception to the one-inch-deeper than they were in their original homes rule. You can cut off all the lower leaves and bury the stems up to the top leaves and roots will grow all along the buried stem. Don’t do this with determinate tomatoes because they have a set height and yield, so a massive removal of leaves and stems can reduce the harvest. Your seed packet will tell you what the growth habit is, as should the nursery tag if you buy your transplants. If all else fails, Google the variety.

Once the holes are dug, I fill them with water. To help insure that sturdy root systems develop, I throw a handful of bone meal into each hole, and then cover that with a layer of dirt and fill the hole with cold water again. Not every gardener uses bone meal but I think that it really helps, particularly with heavy eaters. I never got a decent corn or eggplant crop until I used bone meal, so I’m sticking with this step.

Only after all this preparation are my seedlings ready to move into the greenhouse or garden. I work with the seedlings one at a time because the tiniest of roots can dry out if they are exposed to the air for too long. I put the plant into its hole and gently push the soil in, pressing down to eliminate air pockets. Watering is more efficient, and saves you money, if you insure that the water goes down to the roots instead of into the walkways. You can do this by pushing down the soil enough that there is a bowl around each plant. Hand or rain watering will naturally collect into that sunken area, funneling it to the roots.

I have found that the bowls deteriorate over the season, so either you must keep making new ones or you can install season-long bowls. Over the years, I have amassed dozens of those black plastic containers that housed the honeyberry, raspberry and rose bushes I purchased from local nurseries. They are too large for my seedlings and too small to be decent container gardens, so now I recycle them to make plant bowls. I slice off and discard the bottom third of the containers and set the remaining cylinders around each of my greenhouse plants and my larger garden plants. (Meaning, I put them around my pumpkins but not around things like scallions or pak choi.) I push them a few inches into the dirt and bank dirt around the outsides to keep the plastic in place.

These bowls don’t just direct the water to the roots of the plants, they help me keep from over and under-watering. Most plants need at least a gallon of water a week, unless it is a cold or rainy summer. These bowls hold around that much water, so no guessing required. I tend to over-estimate how long I have been watering (and weeding, for that matter). This makes sure I don’t decide five minutes is really a half hour of watering.

So, I dig holes, fill with water, add bone meal, scatter more dirt to cover the bone meal, water again, set in and gently spread out the roots of each plant, back fill and pat down to make a bowl, and push in the plastic summer-long bowls. But I am not done. I add half-strength fish fertilizer to warm water and water the transplants again. Then I go back and look at each transplant to make sure the watering has not helped the soil develop sink holes; if so, I add dirt and water again. Then I go inside and complain to my husband about how tired I am.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at

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