Friday, March 22, 2013

Repotting seedlings

A set of true leaves means they're ready to transplant!
If you're like me, and start your garden plants yourself indoors, you'll inevitably have to move them from their first small home into a larger pot before putting them outside. Tomatoes are a great example of a plant that starts out tiny but needs a lot of care to get it strong enough to live outdoors, especially here in New England.

Re-potted to allow more growth
I like to start my tomatoes in very small cells, either the plastic kind or egg cartons or toilet roll tubes. If you live in a warm part of the country, you may be able to plant these directly outside before they outgrow their tiny containers. Those of us in the (still frozen) north have to work our way toward the outdoors with an eye to late frosts and even late snows. This means you'll need to take those tiny seedlings and transplant them into a slightly larger home at least once, and possibly two or more times, before it's warm enough to accommodate them outdoors.

One of many re-potted tomatoes
I realized it was time to re-pot my tomato plants when I noticed a few things. First, they were tall enough to touch the light in the greenhouse, and they were getting leggy, a term that means their stems had grown very long. Second, the majority of my tomato seedlings had developed true leaves, which are the ones that develop after the initial seedling leaves. I pulled out my potting soil and some plastic and styrofoam cups, a pen and a jug of room temperature water. I was ready!

Leggy seedlings
I allowed the soil to dry out a bit the night before I intended to re-pot, because it makes it easier both on me and on the plant. As you can see in the images, many of the cells held two or more tomato plants, because I had excellent germination this year (thanks Annie's Seeds!). Earlier in the month, I had thinned down most of the cells to only one or two seedlings by cutting off excess ones at the soil level. I hate doing it, but if the seedlings are too close to one another, neither will survive being pulled apart, and so it's important to thin your seedlings. If two seedlings in a cell are far enough apart, I often leave both to grow, because I can separate them without harming either plant. This means that, while I planted six cells of Amish Paste tomato, I ended up with 11 seedlings. The garden will be happy, and so will our larder!

Add soil, then seedling, then top off with more soil and pack gently
Re-potting is quite easy, though sometimes finicky work. Carefully pop your seedlings out of their current home (for toilet rolls or egg cartons, peel away the paper exterior carefully as roots will sometimes work into the paper) and place them in your soil bucket. Fill a container (in this case a plastic drinking cup) with an inch or so of soil, then carefully put your seedling into the container. Continue adding moist soil around the seedling and packing it relatively gently down as you go.

Buried almost to the leaves
You will notice above that there is a LONG stem on each seedling, and below you'll see that I buried each seedling almost to its first set of leaves. Each of the little hairs on a tomato seedling can turn into a root if it's buried, so don't be afraid to slide them very deep into the dirt. It allows the plant to become more efficiently rooted, and more stable. Make sure each new container has drainage holes at the bottom (I used a pencil to poke three holes in each cup) and is clearly labelled with the plant it contains. It's too easy to mix up seedlings, especially if you are like me and have several breeds of a single type. We have Amish Paste, Cherokee Purple, Italiana Roma, and Moneymaker tomatoes all in the greenhouse at present, and they look remarkably like one another. You don't want to mix them up!

Tucked into the greenhouse
When they've all been re-potted, it helps to put them onto a drainage tray of some kind. We've chosen to re-use some disposable aluminum lasagna trays to hold our seedling cups, as it holds the water well for bottom feeding, and supports the cups as well. The tray allows you to remove whole batches of seedlings from their greenhouse or window spot rather than having to try and handle one at a time. You should water your seedlings immediately after they're all transplanted, preferably from the bottom (this encourages root growth). Don't allow the seedlings to stand in pooled water for more than an hour or two, though, or you risk developing fungus which may attack and kill the tiny plants.

I originally planted my tomatoes on February 24, and by March 18 they were largely ready for transplant. The Cherokee Purples did not have true leaves yet, but each of the other tomato breeds did. I chose to leave the Cherokee Purples in their small cells for a bit longer, and have been rewarded this morning (March 22) with the beginnings of true leaves. They'll be transplanted this weekend.

Do you start your own seeds? What's your favorite breed/brand to start from seed? Do you have any successes or lessons to share with us?

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