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I just started gardening, and I'm getting really into it. I live in an apartment and I've been planting seeds in containers and putting them on my balcony. I read the instructions on the seed packet and some say to "plant in a small container, leave in dark for a few days, keep moist, then transplant into bigger pot." My question is why transplant? Why not just put the seed where it's eventually going to go and you're done?

I transplanted a seedling into a larger container and I butchered it, it was my first time. I think I exposed the roots, and I haven't seen any growth in a couple weeks. I think they are in shock, or otherwise not doing well.

I can see if it's cold outside and you want to protect them from the weather, but that doesn't apply to me. Why can't I just put the seed in where it's supposed to end up and save the added work and the risk of botching the transplanting? What is the benefit of transplanting?

  • I think the primary reason for hardening off is actually that the plant isn't used to large amounts of UV and IR rays, and so might die without taking measures to prepare it, although people often say temperature and wind are reasons. Plus, the plants may be used to a more moist or protected environment; if so, dry air may make it worse. – Shule Sep 10 '16 at 5:38
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When you are dealing with plants which are going to end up in containers anyway you absolutely could opt to seed them into those containers indoors and then later move the containers outside once you've hardened off the plants. They might turn out just fine that way and I'd absolutely encourage you to try that - seeing what works is part of the fun of growing things.

Often folks - and I've done this myself - initially put seeds into trays or peat pots or some sort of biodegradable container and put them under a grow light or just a fluorescent bulb, typically inside some sort of covered tray to help keep the environment moist and a bit warmer. I've put trays atop my fridge before to do this. This isn't always possible to do with the container that they'll eventually end up in. Additionally, when you plant them in a relatively shallow tray, it is easier to keep the seedlings in a moist planting medium. Often in a larger container, much of the water works its way to the bottom. Plus, the mass of potting soil doesn't readily heat up as well as the more shallow tray. Seeds need moisture and warmth and then later some sunlight (or a reasonable facsimile - e.g., fluorescent lighting).

The key with transplanting seedlings is to make sure you've got a well-established root system, have your new planting hole ready to go and then get that seedling moved w/out having all the planting medium falling off those roots. If you bring enough of that planting medium with you when you put it in the new container the plant won't really "know" that it's been transplanted.

Also, when transplanting and I find the seedlings are root-bound, I'll take a blade and lightly cut a bit on the root system (just slash a bit on it along the bottom) to help encourage better root growth.

Hardening off, though, is a key step in successfully moving a plant that has been inside to its new outdoor environment. That just involves putting it outside progressively more over maybe a week to ten days. Seedlings inside haven't been dealing with lots of sunlight (presumably) or the wind or the cooler night temperatures or the less-frequent watering that tends to happen when they go outside.

When I've transplanted seedlings outside I'll start off by isolating them from the wind but give them sunlight for a few hours and then bring them back in. Each day I'll increase how long they spend outside and cut back a little bit on the watering. I don't do any fertilizing or anything like that during this period. I watch the weather and bring them in if it is going to to be severe.

Well, I've wrote a book. Hope that's helpful.

  • Two problems you might have with starting them in a large container indoors are these: 1. If your light levels aren't high, the soil may get a lot of mold on it. 2. Your seeds might like to start in seed-starting mix (and if you fill the whole container with that, you'll most likely have nutrient issues later on). You might get some seeds to germinate in regular potting soil, but seed-starting mix is generally recommended for best results. You could put seed-starting mix around the seed and potting soil elsewhere. – Shule Sep 10 '16 at 5:45
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There are a couple of other reasons in addition to what has already been stated why you may want to transplant seedlings. One reason is you are not sure how many off the seeds will germinate so you can plants extras in tiny pods and then transplant the healthiest one to the larger pot. You can always plant multiple seeds directly in the pot itself, but remember to remove some if too many end up germinating. The other reason is to get a head start on the planting. If you already have an existing plant in the pot that is approaching its end of life (e.g. a tomato plant approaching Fall will stop giving fruit), you can start the seed in a small pod so that you can transplant it when the plant in the pot is ready to be removed. Otherwise you can loose a few weeks if you start off with a seed in the pot. Again, this depends a lot on the volume at which you are gardening, weather conditions, type of plants, etc.

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