The Southern Agrarian

Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Transplanting Seedlings

Red cabbage and Romaine Lettuce seedlings ready for transplanting


While direct seeding is probably the most common way of starting a garden, there are some major advantages to starting your seedlings in a tray and then transplanting them once they have gotten to the right stage.

  • Very little seed is wasted.
  • Thinning can be done while comfortably sitting at a bench or table.
  • By starting Spring crops before the last killing frost, harvest comes several weeks earlier.
  • Beat the bugs. Insect pests arrive when plenty of food is normally available to them. By planting earlier than normal, you can harvest while pest pressure is still low.
  • Aesthetics – There is just something very rewarding about looking out over your garden and seeing full, straight, evenly spaced rows. It is generally easier with transplants than with direct seeding.

Let’s look at the process, step by step:

Seed tray, seeds, and soil. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.


Fill the seed tray with seed starting soil. Unless you’ve got a very large garden, you may find that just getting pre-mixed seed starting soil is best. Make sure that the soil is moist before adding seeds! Press it in firmly, then smooth it off. Use something to make the hole to receive the seeds at the proper depth. I find that the end of a “Sharpie” marker works well for most seeds.


Seeds will sprout, then grow under lights until ready to transplant. Keep the plants close to the light source. I use a timer to give them about 16 hours of light per day. Experiment to see what works best for you. Check them regularly and don’t let them dry out.


When it’s time to transplant, allow the seedlings to get fairly dry so that they are easier to work with. Use a dowel about the size of the drain holes to push the seedlings out and lay them in a tray for easier handling. The flat end of a cheap ballpoint pen works pretty well. This is where you’ll be glad you packed the soil in the cells nice and firmly.


The seed trays have grooves in the sides to help guide the roots straight downward rather than allowing them to wrap around into a ball.


I use a knife to open up a hole for the transplant, and a “garden scooter” that I found at a yard sale to make it easier.


Nice straight, even rows of plants is a beautiful sight. Be sure to water it well immediately after planting and for the next several days until the roots get better established.


A few more notes:

  • My standard spacing for most crops is 12″ between plants, and 24″ between rows. Larger plants, such as tomatoes and eggplant, are spaced wider.
  • The seed trays I use are available from Hoss Tools, which is where I get most of my garden tools. These are the 162 cell trays with the Heavy Duty Bottom Trays. They are not cheap, but they are incredibly rugged, and will probably last long enough to be passed down to your grandchildren if given reasonable care. The Bottom Trays may seem like just an added expense, but they are very helpful and well worth it. If you’re just getting started, you might want to start off with another cheaper type of tray; eventually, though, I have no doubt that you’ll end up getting some of these Hoss Tool trays.
  • Once the seeds have sprouted and sent down their roots, you can water from the bottom up. This is where the Heavy Duty Bottom Trays come in handy. Make sure that you water from the top until all the seeds have sprouted and put down roots before you start bottom watering.
  • Be sure to read up on what you will be planting. Not all plants will tolerate transplanting very well, so they work better if direct seeded.  Some examples of plants that generally do NOT do well with transplanting are beans, corn, and okra. I have done reasonably well transplanting even those plants that are not recommended for it, but as a general rule, follow the planting guidelines unless you just want to experiment (which I highly recommend!).
  • I try to always plant a few “spares” between the rows, or somewhere else in the garden. These are used to replace the ones that don’t survive the transplanting – I like neat, full rows.
  • I mentioned earlier to make sure that the soil is damp before adding it to the trays. If it is too dry, surface tension will not allow the water to penetrate the dry soil, and your seedlings will shrivel and die for lack of water – even though you are “watering” them regularly (see photo below). You want the soil to be just damp enough that you can squeeze it into a ball and have it stay in that shape. You might be able to squeeze a drop or two of water out of it, but you don’t want it much wetter than that.

This is what happens when the soil going into the trays is too dry. Surface tension prevents the water from going into the soil and reaching the roots.


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2 Comments

  1. Peter S. Kelley

    January 27, 2020 at 5:46 am

    A very comforting post early on a cold morning in the Tennessee mountains.

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