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Get ready: Transplanting time is almost upon us

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Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2010 4:24 am | Updated: 1:16 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - Try to restrain yourself. It is still a bit early for transplanting; even though some years we don’t see frost after mid-May, most years we have the occasional frost clear up to Memorial Day. And, frankly, even if it does not get down to 32 degrees, plants are not happy at 35 or 37 degrees, so try to wait another week or two.

Meanwhile, you can start the process by hardening off your plants, so that they are ready to withstand the rigors of our windy days, cold nights and excessive daylight. Hardening off is simple — 10 days or so before you intend to transplant, you start exposing your pampered darlings to increasing amounts of sun and wind. Two hours the first day in a place sheltered from sun and wind, the next day two hours in the sun and wind, and every day after that another two or so hours added on. Eventually, you should be able to leave them out all night. During this process, be sure to check watering needs, as that can increase dramatically as the plants are exposed to the elements.

So, there you are on Memorial Day, hardening off completed. Start the transplant process by remembering that you do not have to do it all in one day. I find that if I do try marathon transplanting, the last of my seedlings are not treated as kindly as the first — after hour seven or eight, I am fairly slamming them into a hole and telling them that they can like it or die.

In fact, you can keep transplanting until about June 7, with no discernable loss of growth or yield. The tenderest plants should be the last ones you transplant, since the warmer the soil and the air, the better for them. It is also better for me because it provides the time to work slowly so at the same time I can contemplate how lucky I am to have the space, the physical ability to garden, and an environment where I am dodging summer afternoon rains instead of bullets.

Before I transplant that day’s seedlings, I water all of them with warm compost tea or, lacking that, fish fertilizer or juice from the wormery. This helps cushion the shock and also makes it easier to ease them out of their cells or containers.

After that, I dig all the holes I am going to need for that day. If you want to move and re-move transplants about as you imagine what they might look like in that area when full grown, great — just do it while they are still in their homes. The roots are really quite fragile. In other words, don’t de-pot them in your garage and wheel a barrel full out to the garden so that you can place and re-place them until you are happy. Plants treated this way will have a harder time making it through the initial transplant shock, and some will give up the ghost entirely.

Don’t use the hole digging as one place to skimp on effort. You want an opening that is sufficiently deep and wide to accommodate the transplant at least to the same level and width it was in its first home. Actually, most plants can go a bit deeper and indeterminate (i.e. vining) tomatoes can be put in almost up the top leaves. In fact, if your tomato transplant got a bit leggy or looks frail, you absolutely should plant it deeper so that roots can sprout along that slender stem, just snip off the excess leaves first.

Before you put in the transplant, however, fill the hole with water and let it soak in. I tend to do this row by row, meaning I dig all the holes I am going to need and then water all the holes in one row. Then I put a small amount, like a scant handful, of steamed bone meal in the bottom of the hole and throw in enough soil that the roots do not come in direct contact with it.

Your garden may not need this. In fact, if you have been working the same area for the last dozen or 15 years, I would not do this until a soil test confirmed that your soil could do with some phosphorus. But I have found that the plants started with some steamed bone meal have more vigorous root systems.

Be aware, however, that dogs whose owners don’t care enough to keep them fenced or somehow restrained will be attracted to the bone meal and may start digging up your plants. My three foot high raised beds are a deterrent to most dogs , but when I planted at ground level it led to some visits to owners of marauding dogs — if you are too timid to track down the owners and complain, best skip the bone meal step. Instead, add some compost if you have any. No matter what amendment you use, fill the hole with water again and let it soak in. (And for those who are tempted to send me a nasty email, I remind you that I have an Irish wolfhound that is over six feet tall when he elects to rear up, so I know what a pain it can be to be a responsible owner.)

Only after I am done with digging, watering, adding bone meal and re-watering, do I gently ease the transplant out of its current container. This sometimes means cutting the sides open or, if you want to salvage the container, putting the entire thing in a bucket of warm water until the roots loosen their grip.

Gently place the transplant into the prepared hole, spreading out the roots. Firmly tamp the soil back down around the plant, creating a bowl shape around each one. This traps water, including rain, and directs it down to the roots, thus reducing or eliminating run off (this saves you money and time). After I make the bowl, I water again, this time with warm compost tea or fish fertilizer.

When I have completed that day’s work, I go back and add more soil if the watering has exposed the sinkholes that result from air pockets. I also put cutworm collars and root maggot collars around the susceptible plants. I make one final survey of that day’s work and go relax.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@acsalaska.net.

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