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transplanting seedlings to bigger pots

5 Signs It’s Time To Repot Your Seedlings

It’s important to be able to recognize when it’s time to transplant seedlings from the seed tray to a larger pot. Transplanting seedlings a few weeks after starting should be part of your seed starting routine.

We start the seeds in smaller containers because we can control moisture and temperature much better that way, and if you’ve heard me talk much about seed starting then you know my motto is that moisture and temperature are the most important factors in getting good germination.

But once the seeds sprout, they quickly outgrow their seed starting container. It would be a bad idea to let them continue to grow in a pot that is too small. They’ll become nutrient deprived and their roots will grow round and round into a big knot.

Transplanting them into larger pots, helps them develop healthier roots and grow faster. By not restraining their growth indoors, you’re training them to grow big and strong when it’s time to put them in the garden.

But how do you know when to repot seedlings?

There are a few simple things you can look for that are dead giveaways your plants need a bigger pot.

1. They have one or two sets of true leaves

The ideal time for transplanting your seedlings is about 3 weeks after they sprout or when you have 1-2 sets of true leaves. It’s better to get them in new containers before they start to show the signs of stress listed below.

2. The cotyledons are turning yellow and falling off

Cotyledons are the first leaves that emerge from a seed. They are different than the “true leaves.” True leaves are the second and subsequent sets of leaves that grow after the cotyledons emerge.

It is normal for cotyledons to yellow and fall off, but if they’re doing it when you only have 1 or 2 sets of leaves, your plants really need to be transplanted.

3. The true leaves are turning yellow

It’s definitely time to transplant if the true leaves are yellow. This is a sure sign that your plants are starved for nutrients.

4. The roots are wound around and around the root ball

You definitely want to see roots in your growing medium when it’s time to plant, but if they’re circling around the edges of the root ball, then they’re getting too crowded.

5. They’re crowded

You don’t want to overcrowd your plants when they’re young. Some plants will grow taller than others and that will affect how much light the others get. You’ll also get the larger plants sequestering all the nutrients and that will stunt the growth of your other plants as well.

Why transplant the seedlings at all?

You might wonder why we would go to the trouble of repotting seedlings at all? Why not just give them some fertilizer, or better yet, start them in a larger container to begin with?

You’ll be much more successful germinating seeds if you start them in small containers. This allows you to have more control over the temperature and moisture in the seed starting container. We’ve found we have much better sprout rates in the smaller cell trays as compared to using other types of seed starting containers.

You can dose your plants with some fertilizer but that will stimulate growth. They’re already telling you they need more space, why stress them by making them grow bigger in the same small space?

Both of those options are viable alternatives, but you’ll have healthier plants if you transplant instead.

How to repot seedlings

Transplanting seedlings is quite easy to do. You simply need a new container and some potting mix. We recommend a container that is twice as big as what they are in now and a high quality potting mix like Fox Farm Ocean Forest.

We like to mix the potting mix and the seed starting mix in a 50:50 ratio. This is especially helpful for young seedlings who still have tender roots.

Before filling your containers, wet down your soil mixture to ensure even watering after you plant. Then nest your seedling in the new container, filling in around the base of the plant and pressing down to seat it in well and remove air pockets.

For tomatoes, bury the stem leaving only 1 or 2 sets of leaves above the soil line. For all others, plant them level or bury the stem about 1/4 inch or less.

Water your transplanted seedlings well and place them back under the light.

What about fertilizing seedlings?

You can fertilize young seedlings after transplanting as needed. Use a liquid organic fertilizer diluted to half strength. If they tolerate the half strength and seem like they need more, you can up it to full strength.

Don’t fertilize your seedlings until after you transplant them. You don’t want to stimulate growth in a space that is too small.

Do you transplant or repot your seedlings?

Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

You've conquered seed starting. Woot! But do you know when to repot seedlings? Transplanting seedlings is a step you can't skip! Learn the signs your plants are telling you they've outgrown their seed starting tray.

Waiting to Transplant

Mark Macdonald | March 29, 2020

Many plants benefit from a head start by sowing indoors during late winter and early spring. For a few crops, notably peppers and tomatoes , this indoor start is an absolute requirement if growing from seed. These tender, tropical plants will be killed outright by frost, and will show immediate signs of distress if exposed to cold spring weather. So the gardener’s strategy is to make an educated guess about when it will be warm enough to transplant them outdoors, and work backwards from that date according to which crop is involved.

Tomatoes, peppers, and many perennial flowers require a good six to eight weeks of indoor growing before even considering peeking outside. But that’s a long time for plants to grow, so here are some strategies to consider while you are waiting to transplant outdoors.

Light

Just about from the time the seeds are first placed into (or onto) the soil, bright overhead light is essential. With insufficiently strong light, seedlings will begin to grow tall and leggy from the very start. The seedlings are stretching their stem tissues, literally straining to get their leaves higher and closer to any light source so they can begin to photosynthesize and produce food for themselves. All seedlings do this, from tomatoes to palm trees.

If sufficient light is supplied, the seedlings have no need to strain and stretch, and they will remain stout and compact, with good colour and overall health. How does one provide sufficient light? Well, every grower has access to different tools. A heated greenhouse would be perfect for most seedlings, but these are expensive and few of us have access to them. So seedling lights are a smart option. Inexpensive T5 fluorescent tubes are available in several sizes. They produce full spectrum light in the frequency plants need for foliar growth. Even with a good double (or multiple) tube set up, it’s recommended that the tubes be kept 10cm (4″) above the tops of the seedlings. That may seem very bright, but one cannot over-apply light in this setting. The Growlight Garden is a self-watering kit with an adjustable hood that can be raised as the seedlings grow. And there lots of other ways to use the lights with adjustable stands . A superb, super-low energy alternative to T5 tubes is the recently developed LED light strips that fit most grow light fixtures.

Heat

Seedling Warmers do an amazing job of speeding up germination. They work with “bottom heat” which gently heats the soil above the ambient room temperature. This stimulates growth and really helps get plants started. But the gardener’s strategy is to keep the seedlings small and compact during this early indoor stage, so the mats should be removed or unplugged once germination occurs. Otherwise, they will continue to encourage fast growth, and the seedlings may become too large for their containers, or take up too much space indoors.

Even for heat-loving tomatoes and peppers, a warm growing space is not required during this nursery stage. Given ample light and a cool environment of around 18°C (64°F), the plants should grow slowly, but steadily, producing the healthiest transplants.

Air Movement

Seedlings will nearly always benefit from some movement of air indoors. This will help reduce excess moisture buildup and the possible mould and mildew problems that result from it. If their leaves and stems are subject to even slight movement, seedlings will develop stronger cell walls and be better prepared for the harsh elements of the great outdoors. If seedlings were started under domes, it’s a good idea to remove the domes after germination so that air can move freely and excess moisture can evaporate from the soil and trays. A very basic table fan is all that is needed to improve air movement for the benefit of seedlings.


Space

There are numerous reasons for encouraging compact growth while waiting to transplant seedlings outdoors. As seedlings grow, they begin to compete with their neighbours for light, and if they are planted together, for nutrients and moisture. The gardener’s strategy here is to prevent unnecessary competition between seedlings. So lots of light and a cool environment will help. But plants continue to grow beneath the soil just as quickly as they do above.

This is a good reason to not fertilize seedlings prior to transplant. Fertilizer produces strong, fast growth, which is not wanted at this early stage. Seeds contain enough food to produce the initial cotyledon or first pair of leaves. These are then used by the plants to produce their own food, through photosynthesis, to allow for the growth of new tissues. Until they need to really go to work at transplant time (and after), the plants need no further nutritional help.

Potting On

The phrase “potting on” describes the gradual transition from seedling tray to small pot, and from small pot to slightly larger pot, as needed, as the seedlings grow. If cold weather persists outdoors, transplanting may be delayed by weeks. And even with the light, space, and environment described above, most seedlings will eventually out-grow their root space.

Most plants are not bothered by potting on, but it should be done with great care not to damage the delicate root system, and without bruising the leaves and stem. Handling seedlings by the root ball is often safest. Refer to specific instructions about each type of plant in question.

Some plants respond very poorly to transplanting, so if they absolutely must be started indoors, it’s a good strategy to use peat , coir , or newspaper pots , or Cow Pots , that can be transplanted, pot and all, into a larger container, or into the garden row. This prevents the seedling from having its roots disturbed, and they will eventually penetrate the pot as it biodegrades in the soil. Soil Blockers are a fantastic alternative for small farms or nurseries, or wherever large numbers of seedlings need to wait for transplanting.


When to Transplant?

The question of when to transplant seedlings is absolutely tied to regionality. The last average frost date in a given region is a very general tool for estimating how many weeks later is appropriate for transplanting. A basic plan can be used by employing our Regional Planting Charts , but it takes careful management to get this right. For peppers, tomatoes, and most tender seedlings, a good rule of thumb is to wait until night time temperatures are steadily at (or above) 10°C 50°F before even contemplating transplants outdoors. It may work earlier with the help of a greenhouse, cloche cover, or cold frame, but that’s another subject.

All seedlings will benefit from hardening off – the process of gently acclimatizing to direct sunlight, cool temperatures, wind, and night/day temperature fluctuations. These can all cause transplant stress, so hardening off is a key step to success.

Summary

I like to think of the indoor seedling stage as an artificial holding area. We want the seedlings to be at their peak possible health once we transplant them. Before that, though, they’re still young. They’re still in school. Only when they actually get transplanted do we put them to work. It’s that key point when they’ll benefit from organic fertilizer to give them the push into the proper growing season. After transplanting is the real time to help these plants accomplish their goal, to mature, and to produce the leaves and fruits that make all this work worth while.

Learn some expert gardening advice on when to transplant seedlings, along with some key organic gardening strategies for producing the healthiest seedlings.