7 Ways To Minimize Transplant Shock In Seedlings

gardener with yellow gloves holding a seedling in soil

When you’re ready to plant your flower seedlings in the garden, it’s essential to do so correctly to avoid transplant shock. 

Transplant shock is a condition that can occur in plants when they are moved from one place to another. This often happens when the plant isn’t prepared for the move, if the roots are damaged during the process, or if the plant doesn’t get enough water before and after transplanting.

This condition often results in stunted growth and reduced yields, so it’s best to prevent it as much as possible. With proper planting techniques, that’s easy to do. 

Here are seven helpful tips to help prevent transplant shock in your seedlings:

1. Harden off appropriately over the week before transplanting

Transplanting can be a traumatic experience for plants, often leading to stunted growth and transplant stress. There are various ways to minimize this, however, the most crucial being to harden off the plants before transplanting them.

This step applies to seeds started indoors, which are accustomed to ideal growing conditions such as warm temperatures, no harsh sunlight or winds, and regular water. Hardening them off instead of an abrupt move from indoors to out makes for a gradual transition. 

The first step in hardening off seedlings is gradually exposing them to more intense light via natural sunlight.

Start by placing them in a shady spot and gradually moving them into brighter areas over a week. This will help them adapt to the new environment and minimize shock.

You should also gradually introduce the plants to cooler temperatures.

As you move the plants from shadier to sunnier areas in the yard, leave the plants out longer and longer each day so they experience the warm daytime temperatures fading to cooler, late afternoon temperatures.

Here is what a sample week-long hardening off process could look like:

  • Day 1: set seedlings outdoors in the shade for two hours
  • Day 2: set seedlings outdoors in the shade for four hours
  • Day 3: set seedlings outdoors in part shade for two hours
  • Day 4: set seedlings outdoors in part shade for four hours
  • Day 5: set seedlings outdoors in full sun for two hours
  • Day 6: set seedlings outdoors in full sun for four hours
  • Day 7: set seedlings outdoors in full sun for eight hours.

2. Water the seedling at least an hour before transplanting

Plan ahead to give yourself time to water the tray or container of seedlings about an hour before you begin to transplant. Doing so will not only help the soil stick together better when you remove the seedling from the pot or cell, but it will also help prepare the seedling for the process.

By watering the seedling pre-move, you give the seedling a chance to fully hydrate, resulting in a stiffer stem and stronger leaves that can better tolerate being handled.

3. Avoid transplanting in direct sunlight or during the heat of the day

Transplanting is always a delicate process, but it can be especially tricky when done during the heat of the day.

When you transplant in direct sunlight, the heat dries the soil out quickly, and the seedlings can wilt prematurely. This causes them to be stressed and can make them more susceptible to death from transplant shock. 

Early morning or evening is the safest time to transplant when the temperatures are cooler, and the soil is moister, resulting in a lesser chance of stress and shock to the seedling. 

4. Disturb the roots as little as possible (unless root bound)

When transplanting seedlings, disturbing the roots as little as possible is essential. Root systems are responsible for taking up water and nutrients from the soil, and if they’re damaged, the plant may not survive.

Using peat pots or recycling toilet paper or paper towel rolls is a great way to help keep the root system intact. You can plant the whole thing for these types of biodegradable materials; no need to remove the seedling, pop the entire thing in the soil.

pea seedlings growing in paper towel rolls

However, there is an exception to the rule of not disturbing the roots: if a seedling is root bound, it can help to untangle the roots before replanting. Rootbound roots circle the pot it is growing in, creating a dense root ball that will be slow to adapt to its new location.

To transplant a root bound seedling, loosen the soil around the root ball with your fingers or a trowel. Then, gently lift it out of the pot and place it in its new pot or garden bed. Fill in the space around the seedling’s roots with fresh soil and water well. 

5. Remove any dead leaves from the seedling

Leaves that have died or been damaged can sap energy away from seedlings, so it helps to remove them during the transplanting process. Dead leaves can also rot and spread disease to the rest of the plant, so it’s best to remove them when planting.

6. Apply a transplant fertilizer or root booster into the hole where you’re planting

Applying a fertilizer or root booster into the hole where you’re planting is a great way to hedge your bets during the transplanting process.

A root booster for seedlings is a product that helps provide essential nutrients to young plants, which can help them recover from transplant shock and grow more quickly. Some common ingredients in root boosters include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are essential for healthy plant growth. Using a root booster can help your seedling get back on its feet quickly after being transplanted.

A regular garden fertilizer will accomplish the same thing, so if you already have that on hand, use it according to the application instructions on the package.

7. Water well after transplanting

The final step to help avoid transplant shock is to water the seedling after transplanting it. When you set a transplant into the hole and then water it, the soil settles into place around the shallow roots without damaging them. 

The water will also help the plant get started in its new location by providing the essential hydration it needs to resume growth.

These seven preventative measures will set your garden up for quick and healthy growth with a minimum of stress and chance of transplant shock for your seedlings.

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