It’s as natural as natural can be: Plants, from trees to chives, start small and get bigger. We can’t really escape that fact. The trick for those of us looking to cultivate, to instigate food forests and healthy polycultural gardens, is somehow getting from our seedlings to something that will provide us with food, or timber, or chop-and-drop mulch, or windbreaks, or all of these things. Whatever it is that we’ve envisioned happening as an end result of burying that seed or rooting that clipping, it general involves a plant reaching some semblance of maturity.
But, how do we get there? In most cases, going from seed to seedling is fairly straightforward, but when is the right time to take that dainty little sprig of life and put it out into the big bad world? How can we help it survive those first troublesome days, weeks, or years? Hey, it’s something every parent has to deal with at some point. At least with plants, we are able to keep a close eye on what’s going on, there’s no peer pressure or tuition, just a plant that wants to do everything it can to live a fruitful life. How can we not do our best for it?
The dangers of pots
Most seedlings become so in pots. They are raised in protected places where rain can’t pelt them to death, where people monitor the soil closely so that it doesn’t get too dry or too wet, and where the amount of light, wind, pests, and nutrients is all thoughtfully controlled. For this first stage of life, be it two weeks or two years, things are fairly cushy, not unlike they are for human babies.
However, at some point, those little seedlings have to move on, and as growers, it’s a difficult time for us. Send them out to the garden to early and they may not survive the elements. Wait too long to get them out of the pots and they may become housebound, with roots that are far too tangled and stunted to set properly in the earth.
We have to find that window of time or we’ll be stuck starting over, or at best, nursing a sick plant back to health. As a rule of pots, If a plant seems in danger of outgrowing its container too soon, transplant it to something bigger, gingerly loosening the roots so that they will spread out more. The less transplanting there is the better the plant’s chances are. Then, continue as follows.
And when to expel
While our initial instinct might be to look at the size of the plant, namely height, to gauge when that window is, this isn’t the best method. Different plants grow to different sizes and have differently sized seedlings. We wouldn’t expect an elephant baby to be ready to be an adult when it’s the size of a full-grown mouse, right? (That actually seems impossible, but you get the point.)
As well, a seedling looking for the right amount of sunlight might get much taller than another of the same species and germination period (this is called a “leggy” seedling), but that doesn’t mean it’s ready, just like a five kilo baby isn’t any more prepared to survive on its own than one half its size. Finally, we can say in earnest that size doesn’t matter.
So, when do plant, then? Well, the closest thing there is to a standard is observing the leaves. The leaves of fledgling seedlings generally don’t resemble the plant they’ll grow up to be. Rather, when they get to a certain age, they start to experience some changes (this may sound familiar). They shed those baby leaves, aka cotyledons, and begin to sport miniature versions of the leaves, “true leaves”, they will eventually have. When three or four of these leaves turn out, then it’s time to consider relocating the plant.
Preparing them for life away from home
For most seedlings, as we’ve already establish, early life is a bit pampered. Temperatures, weather conditions, and sun exposure is carefully controlled. Simply put, they have not really been prepared for the real world. They don’t even begin to have the skills necessary. They’ve never had to endure anything. They need to be “hardened” up before they are sent out for good.
The right move here is to ease them into life away from home. Some parents like to throw children in pools to teach them to swim, and while it can work, some children develop a lifelong fear of water as a result. A few lessons, slow and steady, seems to be a more compassionate and nurturing method. For plants, this is doubly so.
Rather than taking plants from the greenhouse straight out to the garden, it’s better to help them acclimatize. This can be done by inching them out into the elements.
First, stick them in an open box and move them outside a few hours one day, a little longer the next, then a full day but back to safety at night. Then, they can move outside fulltime, under an eve or rustic shelter (say an understory tree). By the week’s end, they’ll be ready to give it a go.
Finally in the garden
By the time we put these seedlings into the garden, we know they are well prepared, and we are undoubtedly feeling proud of efforts here, confident that they will succeed. That was our plan all along, and having paid attention to the pots, waited for the right leaves, and acclimatized them appropriately, we can reasonably expect them to be taking care of us when they get older.
Before putting the trees or bigger things in the ground, during the hardening process, dig a hole a few days early, making it about twice the size and depth necessary. Sprinkle in a little manure, and fill the extra space with some compost-y soil. Then, cover the hole with mulch so that the sun doesn’t dry it out. This will allow microorganisms to become active. If there are lots of animals around, put up some sort of fence or stakes to keep them from trampling the small plants when they arrive.
After planting the seedlings, mulch a thick ring around the base, leaving a little space for air around the trunk/stem. Mulching protects the soil at the base of the plant from drying out as well as being flooded or eroded by heavy rains or. It prevents competing weeds and plants that might overwhelm a seedling, and at the same time, the mulch will be breaking down to feed the plants, a sort of nest egg from which they can begin life and start making babies of their own.
It’s a beautiful thing to be part of.