While it is typically easier and beneficial to plant in drier soil, transplanting is a different story. The roots of young transplants are delicate, and if you are not careful, moving plants from composted soils can result in disaster, especially in warmer weather.
Soil should be wet when transplanting but not overly wet. Ideally, the soil should be moist to prevent root desiccation and “transplant shock.” Transplanting into dry soils causes plant roots to dry rapidly and die; if the plant cannot grow new roots and recover, the plant will die.
Keep reading if you’re getting ready to transplant seedlings or nursery plants. This post covers everything you need to know to avoid shocking your plants and potentially killing them. We’ll also explain how to test your soil’s moisture level and prepare it before transplanting.
Avoid Root Desiccation and Shock by Transplanting in Wet Soil
Online forums and chat groups are rife with home gardeners who confess to transplanting in drier soil because it’s easier and less messy than wet soil. What’s worse is that they recommend that others do this also!
However, we’re here today to tell you to avoid transplanting in dry soil. It’s best to transplant your plants in wet soil to evade the risk of root desiccation and the plant’s death.
What Is Root Desiccation?
Root desiccation is an act of excessive water transfer from a plant into the atmosphere, resulting in a severe drying of the plant’s roots. Desiccation can happen quickly in young roots when transplanted into dry soil, causing death in a matter of seconds.
The only way to avoid root desiccation occurring when transplanting is by ensuring the soil is wet before you begin. Transplant shock can happen the instant roots touch dry soil, so even if you were to water immediately after transplanting, it would already be too late. The damage is done.
Transplant Shock in Plants
Transplant shock commonly occurs due to transplanting in high temperatures and windy conditions when soils are dry. It’s also common when transplanting in heavily composted soil.
The roots of most transplants are very delicate, especially bare root plants, and easily susceptible to desiccation. When they die, the plant is shocked and made to replace them by growing new roots. You may notice wilting and browning, perhaps even death of foliage, and if the plant fails to recover from the shock, it may die.
Unfortunately, death is common after transplant shock, though not a guarantee. Smaller plants will have a more challenging time recovering from transplant shock than larger plants, and the shock can last days, weeks, even months, or longer in some cases.
Don’t Forget to Harden Your Plants
An essential step in transplanting is hardening your plants. Transplants need to get accustomed to the elements before making their permanent move outdoors. Otherwise, they’re likely to experience transplant shock.
Therefore, you must take time to transfer the seedlings outside to experience short bouts of mild sun, heat, wind, and rain before transplanting. Ultimately, this helps strengthen the plant to endure its transplanting day better.
How to Tell if Soil Is Too Dry or Too Wet for Transplanting
Soil should be moist for transplanting. That is to say, wet but not soggy. Dig down about 6 inches (15 cm) to collect a soil sample, as this is where the roots will be transplanted.
Ideally, the soil should be wet enough to clump and hold together when pressed in your hand, yet dry enough to break apart and crumble when you press the clump.
If your soil ball holds its shape or molds to your touch, it’s too wet. Allow the soil to dry before proceeding. If your soil fails to form or crumbles in your hand, it’s too dry. Water the soil and test again before transplanting.
Preparing Soil for Transplanting
Regardless of when you’re transplanting, you must ensure that your soil is ready to nurture your plants and support optimal growth. It may require one or more of the following preparations depending on the season, the variety of plants you’re transplanting, and the overall condition and health of your soil.
Check the Nutrient & pH Levels
The very first thing you should do is test the soil to determine its health. Use a soil test kit to check nutrient content and pH levels to determine what your soil lacks and if amendments are needed.
Warm the Soil
Depending on the season or where you live, you may need to warm the soil and perhaps even clear snow to ensure timely transplanting. In this case, The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends using wood ash to hasten snow melting and clear plastic to raise soil temperature quickly.
Get Rid of Unwanted Debris
The next thing you’ll do is clear area of unwanted debris. Remove rocks, roots, weeds, and other unwanted plants and matter from the soil.
Loosen and Aerate the Soil
Most soil will compact over winter and require some loosening method before it is ready for transplanting. Be sure to loosen the soil to a depth of 6-12 inches (10-30 cm) depending on the plant, so the roots have room to grow.
Add Organic Material or Other Amendments
Adding organic materials such as manure or compost is an easy way to ensure healthy soil, as this helps improve moisture retention, drainage, and general soil structure.
For best results, spread at least 2 inches (5 cm) but no more than 4 inches (10 cm) of compost into moist (but not wet) soil. Choose amendments appropriately based on the results of the soil test.
Water Amended Soil and Allow to Drain Before Transplanting
Once you’ve prepared and amended the soil, you can begin the wetting process. Water your soil a few times before transplanting to get it wet for transplanting and to help flush excess salts.
Flushing the soil is essential, as the fertilizers and conditioners may have resulted in a build-up of salts. Even though the salts from the fertilizers are “good” salts, an excess can still harm plants. The salt build-up is more common when using garden soil, especially if your compost is exceptionally rich.
Allow the soil to drain between waterings but not dry out if avoidable. At the same time, be careful not to overwater. After two or three flushings, you may wish to conduct another soil test to ensure the nutrition and pH levels are correct before you begin transplanting.
Deeply Water and Rake Soil the Day Before Transplanting
You should deeply water the soil the day before you plan to transplant. This watering helps ensure the deeper layers of soil are moist enough the next day to avoid shocking roots with dry soil. At the same time, it allows the soil time to drain so that you’re not transplanting in soaking wet soil.
Finally, take the time to rake the soil to create a smooth, level surface before transplanting.
How to Transplant Seedlings in Wet Soil
Young transplants will benefit from having time to acclimate to the soil before the midday sun casts its intense rays on them. Thus, transplanting early in the morning is best, preferably on an overcast day, if the weather permits. Warm (but not hot) temperatures are also ideal, so pay attention to the weather forecast and plan accordingly.
On transplanting day, follow these steps to ensure safe and successful transplants:
Check the Soil’s Moisture Level
To check the soil’s moisture, perform a quick “clump test,” as described above, immediately before transplanting to ensure the soil isn’t too dry or too wet. If needed, lightly water the soil until the soil successfully passes a test.
Dig Planting Holes
As you dig your planting holes, make sure they are slightly larger than the widest part of the roots and as deep as the roots are long.
Extract the Seedling From the Starter Container
Carefully remove the seedling by turning the container upside down and gently tapping the bottom. Place your other hand directly under the soil, with the plant stem between your fingers, to support the seedling and prevent it from falling out.
Ensure you avoid crushing the container during this process so you don’t accidentally damage the roots.
Transplant the Seedling to the Planting Hole
Place the plant immediately into the wet soil with enough room to cover with ¼ inch (about ½ cm) of soil. Fill in the space around the roots and gently tamp down to ensure the soil settles in and establishes good contact with the roots.
Water Newly Transplanted Seedlings Immediately
Soak the seedlings as soon as the plants are in the ground. This soaking helps remove air pockets and makes it easier for the roots to settle, reducing any lingering potential for transplant shock.
Fertilize After a Few Days
After a few days, provide your newly transplanted seedlings with a small amount of fertilizer.
A starter fertilizer such as Dr. Earth Organic Starter & Transplant Fertilizer (available on Amazon.com) is perfect because it contains phosphorus to support strong root development, which is crucial when seedlings are still acclimating to the new conditions.
Should I Water Soil After Transplanting?
Transplants need extra care and attention until the roots acclimate and the plants settle into their new home, so keep the soil moist until then.
You should thoroughly water the soil immediately after transplanting. Water deeply at least once a day (twice in warmer months) for the first week after transplanting and regularly until the plants establish themselves. Ensure the soil’s surface remains moist and does not dry out.
Soil should be wet when transplanting to help avoid transplant shock. Transplanting seedlings into dry soil can cause root desiccation and potential plant death. Take care to prepare the soil properly to ensure transplanting is successful.