Avoid Seedling Transplant Shock With These Tips

by Halley -Author at MIGardener

Your seeds are started and seedlings perfectly hardened off, all ready for their new home outside. It's time for the next step. The process of planting out your seedlings can be the final buffer between your plants and transplant shock! The tips below will allow your plants to thrive right from the beginning of their time in the garden.

Tip: for a refresher and a schedule for hardening off your seedlings, click here.

When Are Transplants Ready?

transplanting seedlings

It's time to transplant seedlings once they outgrow their original seed starting container. The first leaves from the sprouts are called "cotyledons" or seedling leaves. Those are the leaves waiting inside each seed. The second group of leaves to show are called the "true" leaves. They will look like a miniature version of the leaves you'll expect to see once the plant is fully grown. Your seedlings are ready to transplant once the true leaves have formed. The true leaves are responsible for supplying vital nutrients for plant growth to the seedling through photosynthesis. Avoid letting the ready to transplant seedlings outgrow their trays for too long. If timing is off and the temperatures outside aren't cooperating, unpot seedlings from their cells to a slightly bigger container. They will expand slightly and have a time buffer before full transplanting. Avoiding this quick fix could result in stunted plants.

Phase 1: Perfect Conditions

Time - There are a handful of great options for what time of day seedlings should be transplanted. The top priority here is avoiding placing seed starts in the midday heat and sunshine. Plant in the early morning to give your plants time to adjust before the afternoon. The best option is to put transplants in the evening after the heat of the day has died down.

Moisture - Water the space you are planting in (after applying fertilizers) before you place your seedlings in the ground. This method preps the soil for plant growth. The soil should be moist enough that it holds together when squeezed but also palls apart easily afterward. If the soil is too dry, it won't hold together at all. Too wet, and it sticks together and releases too much water when squeezed. Your soil is prepped now! Remember to water the seedlings in after their initial planting.

Phase 3: The Transplanting Process

Make planting easier by using a dibbler to make a hold digging easier. Remove each plant from its container gently. A small dibbler is used for transplanting small plants. A larger one is used from transplanting out into your garden.  Push from the bottom of each cell to loosen the plant before pulling it out. Try not to lose too much soil from the original container. Plant a single seedling per location in the garden. Pinch off competing seedlings or remove them gently to multiply the number of plants. Remember to keep the soil moist around newly transplanted seedlings while they establish.

Phase 4:  Observe 

Look out for signs that your seedlings need extra help!


If your seedlings get sunburnt because they haven't been hardened off correctly, there is still a chance for them to bounce back! The most damaged leaves will not recover, but do not remove them, your plant needs all it can have for photosynthesis. As new growth emerges you can remove damaged growth.

Fertilizer burn 

Too much nitrogen at one time will cause fertilizer burn on the leaves. Heavy watering will help to dilute the excess fertilizer. Using a fertilizer with a controlled release method, like Trifecta+, helps to avoid this situation. 


Be sure to water in well on transplant, if your plants look wilted after transplanting, unless extremely dry,  wait until the evening to water in well. Sometimes they just need to get past the afternoon sun to bounce back!

In Conclusion

Keep track of your progress. Every season is unique with its own successes and challenges. If some seedlings still struggle after using these methods, your own notes will help you adapt your strategy for the next growing season.

– Kaitlynn from MIgardener

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