Memorial day is the traditional planting out day in western Pennsylvania.
Earlier this spring I described the process of starting seeds indoors for things like
tomatoes, peppers, and flowering nicotiana. So now that you’ve got your seedlings started, what do you do with them?
The simple answer is take them outside and plant them!
In fact this is what my co-workers and I did last earlier this week when we slipped some
papste tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, some jalapeno peppers, and some unidentified flowers into
the ground in front of our workplace.
The devil is in the details though, and there are some steps that you can take to improve the odds for
those little plants.
The first thing to be aware of is that plants grown indoors are typically exposed to much lower light levels and
far less air movement than they are outside. This means that the leaves are likely going to wind or sunburn fairly easily.
This shouldn’t be a mystery. If we take the average couch potato and rip him from in front of the TV, tossing him into
bright spring sun for 4 or 5 hours, we can be pretty certain that he will sunburn. Plants do the same thing, and for the
same reason. Gradually exposing them to the sunlight for increasing lengths of time will allow the leaves to darken, toughen,
and handle the sun better. Fortunately plants adapt faster than humans. Start them off with a couple hours of early
morning and evening daylight, and in 2-3 days they should be toughened pretty well.
Windburn is pretty much the same thing, and the same approach that hardens the plants to sunburn will work here as well.
The only real difference here is that it isn’t the ultra-violet from the sun doing the damage, it is the wind sucking precious
moisture from the thin leaf surface.
Soil preparation is important. My co-workers and I turned the soil over with a garden fork, dug holes within this, and carefully
set the plants into the soil. We were careful to make sure we broke up large clumbs of dirt near the roots, so as to minimize air pockets.
Last spring I provided tips for a no-till approach to soil preparation. In essence you trade off some time, cardboard or newspaper, and plenty
of mulch in place of turning the soil. It takes longer to prepare the bed, but the soil will be healthier for it, and healthy soil makes
for healthy plants.
Trap the soil down firmly around the plants. Again you are looking to eliminate air pockets, which will dry roots and endanger the young plants.
For tomatoes, don’t be afraid to set the plants down in deeper than they were originally. Any portion of the tomato stem that ends up below
ground will strike roots and create a stronger, healthier plant.
Once the plants are in the soil, water them in well. Coming from a more protected environment, they are going to lose water faster and take
it up slower than they will once they get settled in, so plentiful water in the garden bed is particularly important right now.
Top dress the plants with an inch or so of well aged compost or double ground wood mulch.
Now step back and watch them settle in for the next week or two! Soon the roots will start to explore out into the soil, and it will be time to fertilize.
Remember that sunlight fuels plant growth, and plants usually alternate between root growth and leaf growth. Don’t be surprised if the plants take a week
or two to start really growing. They need to get those roots anchoring into the soil first!