It may seem basic, but it’s essential. A happy seedling has a better chance of growing up to produce abundant harvests. Unhappy seedlings, on the other hand, rarely recover. They carry that grudge all summer long, and refuse to give you the tomatoes and peppers you dreamed of.

Every experienced gardener has a favorite transplanting trick. Mine is stinky water — a very dilute mix of fish emulsion and seaweed fertilizer, cut with water and poured generously over each seedling.

Like so:

Want a bit more detail? Just keep on reading.

It starts with the gear. I prefer to keep things simple: a sharp soil knife (my favorite!), some organic fish emulsion (or fish and seaweed emulsion, as I have here), a watering can, and some seedlings. You’ll also need a water source for filling that watering can.

seedling supplies

First step: mix up some stinky water. This will be your seedling’s first meal in its new home. Fish emulsion is a fabulous, rich, and nutritious fertilizer for organic gardeners. Fish and seaweed emulsion is even better for seedlings — the strong nitrogen in the fish emulsion is balanced by the many micronutrients in the seaweed, providing your seedlings with a more balanced meal. My favorite is Neptune’s Harvest Fish and Seaweed Fertilizer. Good stuff.

It’s also stinky stuff, so be careful as you’re mixing it up. The smell does wash off with soap or lemon juice, but that’s no reason to bathe in the stuff. Ick.

For seedlings, you want a mild solution. I don’t measure, but instead slosh about one tablespoon of the fertilizer — which comes as a concentrate — into my largish (1.5 gallon?) watering can. That’s enough to give the seedlings a taste of the good stuff, but not so much that you risk burning their tender roots with too much nitrogen.

Once you’ve mixed your stinky water, it’s time to plant.

Pick the spot you want for your seedling, being sure to choose a place with enough space for the full-grown plant. Then, dig a hole that is roughly 2-3 times as wide as your seedling’s root mass, and a little bit deeper. Tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, and eggplants can be set a bit deeper than many other seedlings, because their stems will actually send out new roots — bonus!

Once you have your hole dug, go ahead and add a little bit of dirt back to it. You want to add just enough to ensure the soil at the bottom of the hole is loose and easy for young roots to penetrate.

Now, it’s time to release the seedling. You don’t want to pull it straight out of its container. That can result in  decapitated seedling. Instead, grab the stem gently but firmly in one hand, and the pot in the other. Squeeze the pot in several places. Give its bottom a tap too, if you want. Doing this, you should loosen the soil’s grip on the pot, and allow the seedling to be gently pulled from the pot.

Once you have your seedling in hand, take a look at its roots. Often, there will be a mass of roots circling the outside of the soil plug, especially at the bottom. If that’s the case, use your thumbs to gently loosen the roots from their soil. Don’t stress if you break a few, but don’t be overly aggressive. By loosening those roots, you are encouraging them to grow outward from their root mass. This is a good thing.

seedling roots

Then, place your root-loosened seedling into its hole. Pour in enough water to completely fill the hole. This ensures that the roots get a proper soaking. As the water recedes, you can begin adding dirt back to the hole. Fill it up completely, and then give the entire area another good soaking of water.

seedling with water

Congratulations. You’ve planted a seedling.


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What about you? What are your favorite tricks or techniques for planting seedlings?

Click here to share your seed-planting tips below.

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