Transplanting is the technique of moving a plant from one location to another. It allows gardeners to start plants from seeds, which are sensitive to the environment and fragile, in optimal conditions before transferring them to a more permanent location in the garden.

Growing plants from seeds can be difficult, especially if the plant is out of season. There are many variables to consider, and the first few weeks are the most fragile. Some plants are so sensitive that the only way to successfully grow them is through transplanting.

When done successfully, transplanting is a great way to grow new plants, extend their season, and experience the joys of gardening indoors and outdoors. However, it can come at a cost. Simply put, plants aren’t meant to be moved—that’s why roots run deep and steel themselves in the earth.

Moving plants from one area to another may incite transplant shock, which can kill the plant. To avoid this, plants need to be treated carefully and adjusted gradually to their surrounding environment.

Seeds and Seedlings

Before transplanting, you need to consider plant durability and strength. Plant the seed in the center of a flower pot big enough to support that specific plant. Be sure to use a flower pot with drainage so the soil conditions are optimal for young growth.

Seeds have different germination times which can easily be identified online or from the back of the seed package. Allow the seed to grow indoors with frequent water and small amounts of sunlight or larger amounts of indirect sunlight. In roughly six weeks, the seed will have transformed into a seedling that is almost ready for transplanting.

Knowing when the right time is to transplant a plant doesn’t depend on size, as each variety is unique in size and shape. Instead, look at the amount of true leaves on the seedling. The first leaves a seedling sprouts are called cotyledons, which provide stored food to the young and emerging plant.

As it becomes stronger, the “true leaves” will emerge and begin generating energy through photosynthesis. These are almost always darker and bigger than the cotyledons. Once there are three to four true leaves present, the plant is ready to be transplanted to the outdoors.

Hardening Off

The most important part of the transplanting process is hardening off. This is the part when you allow the young plant to gradually adjust to outdoor conditions. Hardening off usually occurs over a week to two-week period, as sudden shifts in environment will cause plant shock and possible deterioration.

When a plant is hardening off, its appearance may not change, but the cellular structure of its stems and leaves will adjust so that the plant can survive in a new environment.

To begin this process, start by leaving the young plant outside for small periods of time. Begin with an hour, and then steadily increase the amount of time you leave the plant outside daily over the course of the next one to two weeks.

By the end of the hardening period, the plant should spend most of its day outside in its new environment. If there are no signs or symptoms of shock, such as pale and sunburned leaves, the plant is ready to make the transition to the garden. (Read More: The Subtle Art of Hardening Off Your Seedlings)

Garden Preparation

While the plant is in the hardening off process, you can prepare the seedling’s new residence. Mix compost and fertilizer into the soil so that it is fresh and full of nutrients. This energizes the soil, and it helps with the transplanting transition. Scientists strongly believe that plants resist disease and become stronger when they have healthy relationships with the rhizosphere.

The rhizosphere is the space where roots and soil come together in a symbiotic bond. A nutrient-filled rhizosphere is the primary necessity for a healthy plant. Before you begin the formal transplanting process, you’ll need to confirm that the soil temperature is within the plant’s preferred range.

Cold soil does not make for optimal growing conditions. Also, check the weather and avoid transplanting if there is a heat wave. Heat can overwhelm the plant and cause shock, so wait for a few cloudy and moist days.

Transplanting

It is time to move the plant from its protected and stable home to the wilds of a garden. It has grown, been hardened, and the soil is ready. Instead of pulling the plant out of the flowerpot and stressing it, push it out by loosening the soil and gradually pushing on the bottom of the pot (if the pot is plastic and moveable).

This is the gentlest way to remove a plant from its home, and helps ease the transition. Always avoid touching the main stem. It has been acclimating to a new environment for the past week and considered fragile. Instead, use the lowest leaves to transfer it into its new home. If they break off, it’s okay; it’s better than if the stem breaks.

Once set in the garden hole, pack the nutrient-rich soil around it as much as possible. Now that it has successfully been moved, drench the soil surrounding the plant with water. This reacts with water-soluble nutrients and the roots will reach out to grow in their new environment.

If there is any worry about transplant shock occurring, try covering the plants from long hours of direct sunlight or to retain soil warmth. Cover the plant intermittently over a four-day period, furthering the gradual transition process and minimizing the possibility of shock.

Transplant Shock

Transplant shock happens most often because of damage a plant sustains during the transplant process. If a plant’s roots or stem are harmed, the plant will lose nutrients and go into shock. Some symptoms of shock to look out for include reduced vigor (small, less vibrant structure), and curled, rolled or yellowing leaves.

If you notice your transplanted plant is in shock, keep the plant’s soil moist and limit its exposure to direct sunlight to a minimum to minimize further damage. Eventually, the seedling will return to health. Transplanting is a delicate process, but offers so many benefits to the gardening enthusiast.

Remember to follow these simple steps: allow the seedling to grow indoors until true leaves appear; allow the seedling to harden over time; prepare the garden; transplant carefully; and watch for transplant shock symptoms for the first few days. Do those things and your plants will flourish long after the transplanting process is over.