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How to Transplant and Move Plants

Updated on March 22, 2016
Jeanne Grunert profile image

Jeanne Grunert is a Virginia Master Gardener, gardening magazine columnist, and book author. She is a full-time freelance writer.


Transplanting Seedlings and Moving Plants

Transplanting seedlings and moving plants requires a little bit of knowledge, skill and preparation. But once you master the basics, you'll know exactly what to do to safely and effectively transplant your indoor seedlings into the outdoor garden or move plants from one location to another.

Some concepts are basic to both transplanting seedlings and moving plants from one location in the garden to another. Other concepts are important to know when moving seedlings only, or transplanting outdoor plants such as perennials, trees and shrubs.

The Basics of Transplanting Seedlings and Moving Plants

There are three basic concepts to understand whether you are transplanting seedlings or moving plants.

  • Season and Timing: It's important to transplant seedlings or move garden plants when the time is right. Seedlings are, for the most part, moved from the warmth and stability of the indoor environment to the outdoor garden after all danger of frost is past. Certain perennials prefer to be transplanted in the spring, while others prefer the fall. Before digging up your plants or starting to transplant your seedlings, check with a good reference website or reference book to know the right time to transplant.
  • Time of Day: Not only is it important to understand the right season and time to move plants, it is also important to move them during the time of day when they will be stressed the least. Most gardeners recommend moving plants during the early morning hours or in the evening. This prevents the sun from scorching an already stressed plant, and gives the plant a little bit of time to recover.
  • Keep Tools Clean: Use clean garden tools such as trowels, spades or shovels. You can dip garden tools in rubbing alcohol to kill any microorganisms that may be lurking on the surface. Clean plastic pots and trays with water and a scrub brush. Use sterile potting soil for indoor plants. Plants are more susceptible to diseases after transplanting them, and the more you can do to prevent contamination, the better.

Minimize Plant Stress During Transplanting

Moving a plant is stressful; it's stressful for the plant, not for you! Think about it this way; plants generally don't move at all. The seed falls from the parent plant, a seedling grows, and it lives its entire life in one spot. Now here we come with trowel or shovel in hand, ready to dig up that plant from the only patch of earth it has ever known, and move it to a completely different environment. That's akin to picking you up without warning and transporting you half a world away, dumping you in an apartment, giving you $20 and saying "Here! Enjoy your new life!" Trust me, you'd be stressed out. Your plant is, too. Be kind to your plants after transplanting them. Most of the advice given to folks interested in transplanting seedlings or moving plants is intended to reduce, minimize or mitigate the stress placed upon the plant during its move. Consider the plant's requirements for light, water, soil and temperature, and what helps it thrive and what harms it. Give it as much tender loving care as you can and the conditions that encourages it to thrive, and you'll stand a much better chance of success.


Hardening Off Seedlings

If you've grown seeds indoors this year, you will need to harden the plants off before transplanting seedlings. Hardening off is a technique in which plants are acclimated to outdoor conditions before being planted in the ground. This minimizes the shock and stress of moving them from the relatively warm, breeze-free indoor space to the often cold and windy garden in the springtime.

To harden off a tray of seedlings that you have grown indoors:

  1. About 1-2 weeks before the date by which you intend to plant them outside, bring the tray of seedlings outdoors in the morning.
  2. Place it in a sunny or partially sunny spot.
  3. Water it well. Make sure you water it during the day if it gets warm.
  4. Bring the tray indoors at night or move it into a sheltered location, such as a garage. If the temperatures will dip near or below freezing, bring it back inside.
  5. Repeat for 1-2 weeks.
  6. For the last several days, leave the trays outdoors overnight.
  7. Transplant into the garden at the end of this period.

By moving the plant trays indoors at night, you give them time during the day to acclimate to their new environment yet protect them at night from harsh conditions.


How to Transplant Seedlings

Are you ready to transplant seedlings?

  1. Did you harden off any seedlings grown indoors? Don't rush the transplanting process and move plants before they are ready. Make sure you've given them time to acclimate to their new environment.
  2. Choose the spot in your garden where you will move the seedlings to, and prepare the soil, if necessary.
  3. Bring your tools to the location. For seedlings, a hand trowel and watering can are generally all you need.
  4. Bring your tray or pot of seedlings to the location.
  5. Dig a hole for the seedlings. Make sure that you space the seedlings according to the recommendations for the variety. The space between the plants will look huge, but you need to leave enough room to allow plants to grow and thrive. Adequate space between plants is a must in the garden.
  6. To remove the seedling from the tray, gently - very gently - grasp it by the leaves or tip the pot over and give the sides of the pot a light tap to release the plant from the pot. Never yank a plant out of the pot by the stem. Plants have many leaves but only one stem. If you break it, you've just broken the equivalent of its spine, and it is going to take it a lot of effort to recover - if it can.
  7. Release the plant from its original container or pot.
  8. Slide the root end (the part that was in the dirt) into the soil. How deep to plant it depends upon the type of plant it is, so again, you will need to refer to a good gardening book for details on your particular plant.
  9. Hold the plant upright and gently push back the dirt around the stem.
  10. Pat the dirt with the flat of your hand or the trowel.
  11. Water the plant well.

Leave plenty of space between garden plants.
Leave plenty of space between garden plants. | Source

Care After Transplanting Plants

Should you fertilize or mulch plants after transplanting? Large plants, such as established perennials, trees and shrubs, may benefit from a mild, balanced fertilizer and mulching after transplanting them. All plants benefit from frequent watering after transplanting. Be sure that little seedlings do not dry out in the garden soil. Their root system needs time to develop, and the roots tend to be near the surface, which dries out more quickly. Frequent watering and mulch can prevent this.

One last tip: use plant labels. Many times I have been in such a rush to move plants from indoors into the garden beds that I forget to label them. When seedlings are small, many plants look similar. I've been left wondering, "Did I just plant the Echinacea here or something else?" By using plant labels, you save yourself the trouble of having to move and disturb your plants again later because you made a mistake and planted them in the wrong spot.

© 2013 Jeanne Grunert


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