How to Select Fall Vegetable Transplants

Some Healthy Transplants

Image A - A plastic container of nine healthy broccoli transplants.  The rich-green leaves and stems signify the vigor of the seedlings.
Image A - A plastic container of nine healthy broccoli transplants. The rich-green leaves and stems signify the vigor of the seedlings.

Getting Started

August is usually when gardeners begin to plant crops that are ideally suited for growing in the cooler temperatures of fall. That usually means members of the hearty cole family--broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale and kohlrabi. However, turnips and mustards are also popular fall crops.

The timely planting of these leafy vegetables is crucial. For example, while broccoli thrives in cooler weather, freezing temperatures can harm these plants, especially their tender buds. Thus, these tasty buds should be harvested before the first frost. Collards, on the other hand, can withstand all but the longest and hardest freezes. In fact, the consensus is that their leaves actually taste better after having been exposed to freezing temperatures. Thus, gardeners usually try to plant collards so that they can harvest their leaves after they have been exposed to the first frost.

The seeds of these vegetables tend to be very tiny and difficult to germinate. Thus, if the gardener chooses to plant his fall crops by sowing seeds, he or she must do so very early in the planting season, which usually means by mid August. Despite doing so, the gardener still has no guarantee that rainstorms will not wash away these tiny seeds or that they will ever germinate. And, if the germination of these seeds undergoes an excessive delay or if the gardener must resow them, he or she might miss the desired target date for achieving the maturity of the plants.

Thus, to avoid these difficulties, most gardeners rely on transplants to establish their fall crops. Transplants are simply young seedlings that have been industrially raised and packaged for transferring to a permanent location in the field. Growers usually package multiple transplants in a single plastic container. However, they have also begun to offer a limited selection of single transplants in a biodegradable peat pot. Sold on a seasonal basis, transplants are available at just about any retail establishment that sells gardening supplies. However, nurseries and the major home improvement chains, The Home Depot and Lowe's, usually offer the best selections at the lowest prices.

During the season for planting a specific crop, growers ship to the pertinent retailers a new supply of transplants for that crop on a weekly basis. The delivered transplants are ready to be installed in consumers' gardens without delay. Consequently, gardeners can feel reasonably confident that they will have access to a fresh supply of transplants for a particular crop whenever they are ready to plant it during the appropriate season. Thus, relying on transplants offers some flexibility in the time for planting fall crops that the sowing of seeds simply does not offer.

As a result of these advantages, installing transplants reigns as the preferred method for planting fall vegetables. However, before you purchase any transplants, determine the correct number that you need. You should allow healthy, productive summer vegetables to remain in your garden for the fall.

After you have determined which and how many fall vegetables you need, your goal should be to select high-quality transplants. Indeed, the level of success that your garden achieves depends upon the vigor of the transplants that you place into it. Installing vital seedlings ensures that your fall garden has an ideal start, not one that is problematic.

Bonnie Plants produces and distributes far more transplants than any of its competitors. This Union Springs, Alabama company has firmly established its reputation as a longtime producer of superb gardening supplies. Thus, whenever you see Bonnie's trademark, you usually can have confidence in that product.

However, Bonnie cannot control the treatment and care that its transplants receive after it delivers them to the retailers. Also, despite the overwhelming share of this market that Bonnie owns, other growers do produce and distribute vegetable transplants. These relatively minor players often do not possess the wherewithal and the expertise to render transplants that occupy the same high level that Bonnie's transplants do.

Consequently, when shopping for fall vegetable transplants, you should be aware of the traits that a sagacious gardener would seek and those that he or she would avoid. As a longtime, successful gardener, I share the following guidelines for selecting the best available transplants for your garden.

The View Underneath

Image B - The minimal amount of roots that extend beyond the drainage holes of this plastic container is acceptable.
Image B - The minimal amount of roots that extend beyond the drainage holes of this plastic container is acceptable.

The Search

As I have already mentioned, retailers normally receive a weekly shipment of fall vegetable transplants during the planting season for these crops. Consequently, try to determine when each nursery and gardening center in your area receives its weekly shipment. A knowledgeable, helpful associate will gladly answer this question for you. The same distributor usually delivers its transplants at several proximate stops within a relatively short interval of each other every week. Thus, you will probably find that most, if not all, of your local nurseries and gardening centers receive their weekly shipments of transplants on the same day.

At any rate, you should arrange to shop for your fall transplants as soon as possible after the latest weekly shipment arrives at each participating retailer. To increase your options, which is almost always advisable, you should select the earliest time at which most of the nurseries and gardening centers in your area will have received their shipments. Obviously, the sooner you reach these new shipments, the better the selections from them that will be available to you. And, in turn, the higher the quality of the transplants that you will be able to place in your garden. However, I do recommend that you conduct this shopping during daylight hours.

Stick a few individually packaged moist towelettes in your pocket or purse before you leave home on your shopping excursion. Your hands might get a little dirty from handling the transplants.

When you arrive at the first retailer, look over its entire selection of the transplants that you seek. Containers of plants from the same shipment usually occupy the same tray. You may see one or more trays in which the plants are taller than the plants of the other trays. The leaves of these taller plants may have begun to yellow. Any such plants are probably leftovers from a previous shipment. Since these transplants lack the freshness of those from the latest shipment, you should eliminate them from your consideration.

However, a yellowing and shedding of the cotyledons--the initial embryonic leaves--should be expected at this point of the seedlings' growth, so consider this occurrence as perfectly acceptable.

Narrow your choices to those plants whose more mature leaves are the greenest. The containers of these plants will probably occupy the same trays, which means that they most likely arrived in the latest shipment. Lift a container of these qualifying specimens. You may need to detach the edge of this plastic container from that of another. However, consider that as evidence that you are the first consumer to handle this particular container.

The grower should have inserted a plastic tag into the potting mix of every plastic container. This tag identifies the vegetable and the variety of the transplants, identifies the grower, provides an image of the mature crop, provides planting directions and offers other helpful information. Be sure that the grower's tag has remained firmly inserted into the potting mix of the container that you have selected. Then look at the tag to ensure that the container bears transplants for the vegetable that you desire. If the tag is missing or has been loosely placed, another consumer probably has tampered with the container. Since the seedlings of cole family crops closely resemble each other, the container may or may not bear transplants for the vegetable that you seek. So beware.

Look at the potting mix, the soil-substitute matter in which the transplants of the container are growing. Now feel it. Does the mix appear to be adequately moist? The retailer should have kept the transplants properly hydrated and cared for upon receiving them. Therefore, you should reject any transplants that appear to have been neglected.

Inspect each transplant of this container for any broken stems and severed leaves. Look for any troublesome spots or any other signs of disease. Obviously, your goal is to select a container in which every transplant is completely intact and healthy.

Sometimes the grower has inadvertently sown two seeds instead of one into the compartment of a plastic container. Thus, that compartment bears two seedlings instead of just one. Consequently, the container of what should be nine transplants actually bears ten transplants. Ideally, each compartment of the container should possess only one seedling. However, the error of having two seedlings in the same compartment is acceptable. You simply must install the twin transplants together in your garden. Separating them would involve disturbing the root ball, the mass of roots and potting mix, which would probably cause both transplants to die.

Carefully turn the container sideways and look at its underside. The roots of at least some of the transplants may have begun to extend past the tiny drainage holes at the bottom of the container. A minimal amount of such growth is totally acceptable. However, the excessive growth of the roots beyond the drainage holes is a troublesome sign that the transplants have remained in their container long after the point at which they should have been transferred to a consumer's garden. If installed into the field at this late stage, such "pot-bound" plants are not likely to develop properly. Consequently, you should reject such plants immediately.

If an excessive growth of roots is not present on the underside of the container, you may choose to perform a secondary test. However, you should perform this test only if you are confident that you possess the skill to do so without causing any damage to the retailer's merchandise. Also, since the grower sowed all the seeds of each container at the same time, the results of this test should apply to all the seedlings therein. In other words, you should conduct this test on no more than just one transplant per container.

Select a sample transplant from the plastic container. Apply gentle pressure to the sides of its compartment to free the root ball while keeping it completely intact.  Then carefully push the bottom of the compartment to shift the root ball and expose its sides. 

Ideally, the ball should show that the roots have only just begun to reach the sides of the compartment. In other words, the roots should not obscure your view of the potting mix on the exterior of the ball. This unobstructive level of root growth is totally acceptable. If you install this transplant into your garden, the roots should expand into the soil properly.

However, if you observe an excessive growth of roots on the exterior of the ball, you can reasonably assume that this transplant has remained in its container far beyond the ideal period. If you install this transplant into your garden, the roots may not expand into the soil properly. Consequently, you should select another container.

As soon as you have completed this test, carefully replace the root ball in its compartment.

If this container of transplants meets all the foregoing criteria to your satisfaction, select it for your garden. If it does not, however, simply choose another container to undergo this multi-stage inspection. Repeat this process until you secure your desired number of transplants that have satisfactorily passed your inspection.

However, if this retailer's entire selection of transplants fails to meet all the foregoing criteria to your satisfaction, simply move on to the next retailer on your list. In fact, you might decide to shop around anyway just to determine which retailer offers the best selection and the lowest prices. As long as your shopping does not take place too late in the planting season, you can always look forward to the arrival of fresh shipments in your area next week. So never feel pressured into settling for inferior transplants.

The Root Ball

Image C - The briefly exposed sides of this root ball reveal an acceptable level of root growth.
Image C - The briefly exposed sides of this root ball reveal an acceptable level of root growth.

Transplants on Deck

Image D - Place your newly purchased transplants where they will receive beneficial sunlight during the brief interval before you install them.
Image D - Place your newly purchased transplants where they will receive beneficial sunlight during the brief interval before you install them.

Some Closing Advice

Okay, you have selected some high-quality transplants, which increases the likelihood that your fall garden will render some impressive results. Remember that these seedlings have been ready to install into a consumer's garden ever since the grower shipped them.  Their freshness diminishes over time. Consequently, you should install these transplants into your garden just as soon as you possibly can. This urgency therefore dictates that you should only purchase transplants when you are able to install them with minimal delay.

Nevertheless, be sure to provide appropriate care for these tender seedlings during the brief interval before you put them into the ground. As soon as you arrive home, go ahead and place the transplants where they will receive the most sunlight. A backyard deck usually serves this purpose quite well. Also, don't allow these container-bound plants to become dehydrated. Ensure that their potting mix remains adequately moist.

I have already mentioned the grower's tag, which should accompany each container of transplants. Its front identifies the vegetable, variety and grower of the transplants and provides an image of the mature crop. Its back provides some planting directions, the anticipated period for maturity and other worthwhile information. Be sure to retain this informative guide at least throughout the life of your transplants.

Save the Grower's Tag

Image E - The two-sided grower's tag contains planting directions and other vital information regarding your transplants.
Image E - The two-sided grower's tag contains planting directions and other vital information regarding your transplants.

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Louis Taylor profile image

Louis Taylor 6 years ago from UK

Cool, just remembered I need to buy some broccoli transplats.

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