May is the time to put transplants of tomatoes, sweet (green) peppers, hot peppers, and eggplants into your garden spot. Such crops would be killed by frost or stunted by very cool or cold weather if placed outside earlier in the season.
A transplant is a plant that has been grown from seed inside a controlled environment that provides warmth and moisture for germination (sprouting). Vegetable plants started indoors are usually those that require a rather long growing season to reach maturity.
Seeds are started several weeks before the last frost date of an area; how many weeks ahead of the frost date depends upon the kind of plant being grown. It takes time (usually a minimum of six weeks), a fair bit of attention (watering, light fertilizing, and sometimes pruning), and a location that has the proper growing conditions in order to grow transplants.
In lieu of all of this work, many gardeners opt to go the easier route of simply purchasing transplants of these kinds of vegetables when the outdoor weather is finally right for putting them into the ground. However, there is a wonderful benefit to growing your plants from seeds instead of buying transplants. You have a much greater choice of varieties if you do all of the growing yourself (from seed to harvesting fruit). That said, several varieties will be available at garden centers and even department stores, farm supply outlets, and often hardware and grocery stores.
If you decide to purchase transplants, you must take precautions to be sure that you obtain good-quality plants. Annual vegetable (and flower) plants should be stocky and free of disease. Transplants should not be too small, which makes them difficult to handle and more susceptible to stem injury.
When transplanting, be gentle and try to keep as much soil as possible around the roots. When dirt falls away from a plant’s roots, tiny root hairs are damaged. Since these root hairs are the main absorbers of moisture and nutrients, a plant finds it more difficult to function with fewer of these important “appendages.”
If you purchase plants that have already developed flowers or fruits, you should probably pinch these structures off. The plant will recover more quickly from transplant shock if it has less top growth to support.
You must be certain that the plants you buy are hardened off before you put them into your garden to fend for themselves. Hardening off is the gradual introduction of plants to the vagaries of outdoor weather after they have been growing under controlled conditions for weeks.
If you find the plants you want outdoors at a garden center and the folks there tell you the plants are hardened off, you can probably be certain that they are, since these folks specialize in plants.
However, if you buy transplants at a business that does not specialize in plants (such as a grocery or department store), you probably can’t be quite so sure that the plants are ready to be immediately placed into your garden. In this case, you might harden off the plants yourself by introducing them to longer and longer periods of sunshine over the course of several days.
If you have a choice between buying plants in peat pots or plastic trays, keep in mind that peat pots can be planted directly into the ground, causing much less (if any) damage to the roots. The decomposition of the pots also adds organic matter to your garden. If you are concerned that the peat pots might deteriorate too slowly, you can gently break away the sides of the pots from the root area. Always make sure that none of the peat pot edge is above the soil level as that will wick moisture out of the nearby soil.
If you buy plants in plastic trays, ask if the plastic is recyclable. If the plants come from a garden center, you could ask if you can return undamaged trays for them to use again. Of course, you can use the trays yourself next year if you decide to get ambitious and grow your plants from seeds!
Be certain to prepare your garden soil in advance of transplanting by loosening the dirt and adding anything that needs time to break down, such as fresh manure, green manure (green crops, such as rye, that are turned under to add organic matter to the soil), and limestone.
It is best to transplant on a cloudy day or on any day in the late afternoon. If you must plant in the morning or during the heat of the day, plants in peat pots may handle direct sunshine better.
Note that even well-watered plants will usually wilt on sunny days for a week or more after transplanting. Their root hairs have been disturbed and these fine structures need time to recover.
By watering the plants very well and keeping the soil around them continuously moist for the first week, you will help root hairs to rejuvenate. After seven days, allow the soil to dry and do not give the plants more than one inch of water a week unless they are having trouble getting through the day without seriously drooping. Slight drooping is OK; only give your plants water if they do not perk up after a couple of hours in the shade or overnight.
Many gardeners have a tendency to water when it’s not really necessary, resulting in the deaths of their plants. So restrain yourself, and in a few months you can literally enjoy the fruits of your labor!