Thursday, April 30, 2009

Transplanting Tomato Seedlings Into Pots

So you have a couple hundred seedlings in a tray and it's definitely time to put them into pots.

I found myself in that situation when several hundred seeds that I was "fermenting" in water suddenly sprouted. The fermentation process is used for loosening the jell around seeds fresh out of the mother tomato so that they can be rinsed clean and dried without sticking together and put into envelopes, etc. for safe keeping.

I forgot a portion setting on a shelf. They had been setting in water for several Months before I discovered them. They had been setting since last November 2008, through Christmas and New Years and into the first of April in murky water. There seemed to be some with tiny roots poking out of the floating seeds when I discovered them. Naaaaaaa. They couldn't be viable. They couldn't still be Alive! But, these seeds were valuable to me. These tomatoes [ "Pinks" ] had barely been touched by Late Blight last year, when 14 expensive Hybrids with all the Fancy initials showing Resistance to several diseases succumbed just at the bearing stage. The "Pinks" each bore buckets of nice medium sized tomatoes. These 2 plants were less than 20 feet from the Hybrid patch. Yes. These were valuable seeds.

So i poured the whole mess out into a tea strainer and begin to rinse them under tepid faucet water. Yes. Those were definitely roots! But were they alive. Have you ever tried to plant little wet tomato seeds in blobs a furrow? Even small furrows in a tray with an inch or so of soil. Can't be done.

All I could do was put a little blob of seeds here - and a little blob there. Then scatter a little soil over them. Press gently in and mist them with a little water. And this is where the story starts.

Over 200 baby tomatoes come up topsy turvy - roots entwined - and thick as fleas in my small paper tray. Aunt Jemima Microwave Breakfast trays. I seem to have centered on them as great trays to start or test seeds in. One stacked upon another. The top one is the seed tray with holes in the bottom for drainage and watering, and the second one underneath with no holes uses as a drip tray. Works for Me! But I digress....


First dampen the seed tray so the soil doesn't dry out quickly. Tiny roots will be exposed to the air for short periods of time. They must not dry out.

  • Prepare the soil for the pots. I mixed equal portions of Purlite, Vermiculite, Top Soil (sacked), Sphagnum Moss, and Sifted Compost. This is what works for me. You might want to make a simpler mix. I heard of a lady a while back that uses nothing but (psst) plain garden soil. And that is also OK if it works for her. I'll bet though that it is soil that she has been composting and adding to for years and has great texture etc. After adding your materials, mix them thoroughly and add water carefully until the mix is nicely damp but doesn't drip water when squeezed. If it does, add a little extra dry material to the mixture. Also, I might add. When you are mixing with a garden trowel or just with your hands (be sure your tetanus shots are up to date if you don't wear gloves ) Always go around the outside of the container. All the way around, and bring soil from the outside in toward the center. Actually this applies to any materials you may be mixing if your doing it by hand. Even a compost pile. This method assures that you have a uniform mix when your done.

  • Prepare the Cups if you use my method. Otherwise, go on to the next step. When I'm not sure of the results as I did here with possible dead seed, I use 3 ounce Dixie cups. If they don't do well with transplanting, the cups cost me around a penny a piece. Also they are biodegradable. If theyy thrive, it's easy to set them into larger pots or directly in the soil without disturbing the roots. Sometimes I go from Seedlings directly to 8 oz Styrofoam cups. Though not Biodegradable, they are reusable several times, cost a few pennies each and a slight squeeze on the cup and the plants drop out easy as pie. To get the cups ready for planting, (paper or Styrofoam) I find a pointed instrument and poke 2 or 3 holes from the bottom of the cups in. I try to do 4 to 6 at a time. Be very careful to watch where both hands are if you do this. A puncture wound can be very painful, dangerous, and slow to heal. Make sure you know what your doing. Or just buy plastic pots that cost 10 to 15 cents a piece!

  • Fill Several Cups with Soil.

  • 5. Fill the cups all the way to the top lightly, and then gently press the soil down so that about a half-inch of space is at the top of the cups. Most of the time you will be setting the pots in trays to water them. Sometimes, you may want to add water to the top of the cup especially when the baby plants have become accustomed to the pots and feel at home.

    6. With a Table Knife, Make a "V" shaped hole in the center of each cup almost all the way to the bbottom of the cup. By now, you will be surprised at the length of the roots. Stick the blade down into the soil, and kind of "rock it" sideways back and forth so as to provide plenty of room for the delicate roots to be lowered into the hole. Prepare several cups in this fashion in order not to waste time transferring plants from the broken-out clumps you will have in the next step. Especially if the seedlings are clumped together, as mine were in this case.

    7. Break out a small clump of plants with the table knife. At this stage it is extremely hard to just seperate one at a time. Especially if they were planted in a crowded fashion as mine had to be. Try to keep it down to just 4 or 5 plants at the most. The next procedure will cause some minimal but necessary root exposure. In this picture, you are seeing about 4 plants clumped together in a mass. The roots are all grown together also. And here is where you are going to learn the fine art of "Dibbling" out seedlings. Or using a pointy instrument to gently pry one group of roots from one plant from another plant, without injury to either.

    8. "Dibble" out one plant from the clump. Here you can see where I am gently pushing and pulling one seedling from the clump. I am using 2 sharpened Chopsticks that I "borrowed" from one of my GrandKids.

    This was very hard to photograph and it kind of looks like "bludgening" more than seperating. Take my word for it. I worked gently and slowly to prevent breaking the stem - immediate death - or tearing the delicate roots.

    9. Pick-up baby seedlings by the Ears.

    Well, that's what I call it. Actually you pick up baby seedlings (whenever possible) by the "Codyledons" or false leaves.Theseare the first leaves that come out from the seed. They are to help the plant survive by feeding it until it's root system is able to sustain it and the true leaves are out and can produce food for the plant. These two leaves will yellow and fall off as the "True Leaves" develope. this is the natural process. Don't panic when you see it. It is the natural process plants use and doesn't indicate any dificency of light or nurishment to the plant. It's perfectly normal. In this case, you can see the CodyledonLeaf that I am grasping is straight and smoothed lined on the edges as most are. The true leaves of the little tomato plant are verigated and pointy. Here I am lowering the plant roots into the hole made in the soil.

    10. After gently guiding the plant roots down into the hole

    again, gently, fold the soil into the hole and gently firm the soil aroung the stem of the plant as well as around the outer rim of the cup. This will make sure the roots will be making good contact with the soil. Will force out excessive air holes, and firm up the sides so when watering later on , the water will not have a tendency to run down the inside of the pot without throughly wetting the rest of the soil. This is especially true if you are watering later from the top and the plants get excessively dry. Water, Water, everywhere around the edges of the cup but the plant dieing from thirst from the dry center area around the roots and stem. Here I just use my index finger to firm the soil a little.

    11. Set the Transplanted Tomato Plant in a tray of water

    immediately after potting it. Allow it to soak up water from the bottom until you can see the soil becomingsoggy around the plant. At this time, take it out and set it in another tray to drain out before setting it back under your lights to grow.


    Later, you may wish to put your plants into larger cups in a week or so, or if you are using the paper cups, you could just set them in the ground if you feel the soil is warm enough and the plants are mature enough. Be sure the cups are deep enough in the ground to be slightly covered at least so as not to cause "Wicking" . That is the outside air draws water out of the exposed paper cup and thence steals water from the roots of the plant.

    Copyright 2009 Robert Mader

    All Rights Reserved

    Drop me a line. Let me know how this worked out for you if you tried it. If you have any questions, i will try to answer them quickly and succinctly. I don't ignore my people. And I enjoy every comment!




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