Last week when writing about Lettuce Varieties for January I mentioned how we grow all our outdoor lettuce as bare root transplants. From January through to the end of April, we sow lettuce seed in open flats. After that date, we sow in outdoor nursery seed beds, and simply dig up the transplants when big enough and replant them in our raised beds. We transplant 120 lettuce outdoors each week until early October and then transplant in our greenhouse and our hoophouse. We also grow many other crops (all the easy to transplant ones) in open flats, or in nursery seed beds.
This method has gone “out of fashion”, but perhaps it will come back in! Atina Diffley (Author of Turn Here Sweet Corn and Wholesale Success) has written a blog post about bare-root brassica transplants at atinadiffley.com/blog/. She has written a thorough-and-concise 9 page manual Seed Beds: Bare Root Field-grown Brassica Transplant Production. It includes a chart of pros and cons of bare-root transplants compared to container-grown greenhouse transplants.
Using bare-root transplants does require a bit more attention to technique than popping plugs into the ground. But it’s not that difficult and we train new people every year with success.
Why bare-root transplants?
Bare-root transplants save a lot of time and money, compared to growing in flats. They also save on valuable greenhouse space. The plants get very sturdy, because they have the full depth of soil in which to develop big roots. Starts grown in outdoor seedbeds are already acclimated to cooler conditions than plants in your greenhouse. They are less prone to drying out than seedlings in flats, but do be ready to protect them from bugs.
Which crops work best?
Bare-root transplants can suffer more transplant shock than plugs, so start with “easy to transplant” crops, such as brassicas (cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi), lettuce, onions and leeks. Tomatoes and peppers are worth trying next. See the Chart “Relative Ease of Transplanting Bare-Root Vegetable Seedlings” free online in Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers. Avoid trying bare-root cucurbits (squash, melons, cucumbers).
Bare-root transplants can be used on any scale, from backyard to large farm. See the impressive photos of huge beds of cabbage transplants in Atina Diffley’s manual. They can be used at various times of year, and from indoors to outdoors and vice-versa.
Spring bare-root transplants started in a hoophouse, planted outdoors.
For the earliest spring transplants, bare-root hoophouse starts are a nice option. For us, onion seedlings overwintered in the hoophouse have worked very well. Seedlings outdoors or in a cold-frame suffer too much winter-kill. We don’t want to fuss with flats in November-February. We’re in zone 7, at 38̊ N. We sow onions in the soil in the hoophouse November 10 and 20, with a backup sowing on December 5. We plant them outdoors as early in March as we can. The onions get to thin-pencil-size by March 1, which we couldn’t do from a spring sowing. Onion roots are tough and thick, not thread-like – they are easy as bare-root transplants.
We sow spinach, collards and kale in the hoophouse in mid-late January and plant them outdoors in early March. This is a lot less work than using flats, and our comparison trials with bare-root spinach showed results were just as good as spinach in Speedling plug flats. We have tried early lettuce transplanted from the hoophouse, but the plants were not as sturdy as those in flats.
Outdoor bare-root transplants
See my book Sustainable Market Farming, for more details of growing outdoor bare root transplants. We grow lettuce this way from April to September, and fall brassicas in June and July, in one of our permanent raised beds where the soil is friable and free-draining. Also see Atina Diffley’s manual for cultivation tips.
We grow outdoor cabbage, broccoli, collard, senposai and Yukina Savoy transplants in seedbeds for 3-4 weeks in June and July, covered with ProtekNet on hoops. We transplant in July and early August for harvest in October and November. We prefer this to direct sowing, because it is much easier to keep the relatively small seedbed watered and bug-free. For large amounts use an EarthWay seeder. Atina Diffley recommends the leek seed plate for brassicas.
Outdoors to indoors
In September we make an outdoor seedbed for crops to transplant into our hoophouse in October. The late summer hoophouse crops get a few extra weeks to finish up. Because the hoophouse can be warmer than ideal for lettuce germination until well into fall, it often works better to start plants in a cooler location, then move the plants. In September in our climate, four-week old lettuce plants will be a good size.
As well as ten varieties of lettuce, we sow various Asian greens and Brite Lites chard. Nine days later we sow another ten varieties of lettuce, white and red Russian kales, senposai and frilly mustards such as Ruby Streaks, Red Rain, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills as well as green mizuna. We cover the seedbeds with hoops and ProtekNet and water daily. Transplanting these plants starts October 1 with the fast-growing pak choy, Chinese cabbage and Tokyo Bekana. The other transplants follow, as they reach the right size.
Stay indoors in winter
In October in the hoophouse we sow short rows of “brassica fillers”, mostly senposai, Tokyo Bekana and Maruba Santoh. These grow fastest, which becomes more important in the dark winter days. We fill gaps in any brassica bed, that occur either because of disease, or of harvesting. In late October and early November we sow filler leaf lettuce varieties and filler spinach. These extra plants help us out if something goes wrong, and give us the chance to grow some extra crops after the first ones have been harvested.
How much to sow
Our formula for sowing seedbeds in the hoophouse is to divide the final row length of brassica plants by 10 to give the minimum length of seed row to sow. These plants will be transplanted 10″-12″ (25-30 cm) apart. For onions (to be transplanted 4″ (10 cm) apart), we divide the number of plants wanted by 20 to give the row feet (67/m), but we sow this amount twice, about 10 days apart. Outdoors for the fall brassicas, we sow around a foot (30 cm) of seed row for every 12′-15′ (3.6-4.6 m) of crop row, aiming for 3-4 seeds per inch (0.75 cm apart). These plants will be transplanted 18″ (46 cm) apart. It’s important to weed and thin the seedlings to 1″ (2.5 cm) apart soon after they emerge.
Transplant age and size
There is quite a lot of flexibility about when a start can be transplanted, but there are accepted ideals to be aimed for. The University of Florida Vegetable Horticulture Program Vegetable Transplant Production page has a wealth of transplant information. Transplants grown over winter or in very early spring in a hoophouse will take longer to reach plantable size than those sown in spring or summer.
Suitable conditions for transplanting
The ideal conditions for outdoor transplanting are mild windless afternoons and evenings just before light steady rain. Transplanting late in the day gives the plant the chance to recover during the cooler night hours when transpiration is slower. Shadecloth or rowcover can reduce the drying effects of wind and sun. Damp soil is important before, during and after transplanting.
Bare-root transplanting technique
When you dig up your bare-root transplants, leave some soil clinging to the roots, to help the plants re-establish quicker. They don’t need a full handful of soil for each plant. Just dig up a clump and give it a light shake, to leave the majority of the soil behind, and some still on the roots. This means less damage to the root hairs. Be sure to dig deep enough so you don’t damage the tap roots. Water your plants the day before and an hour before lifting (pulling) them. In hot weather, keep the plants as shaded as possible while transplanting.If necessary water the soil ahead of planting.
We use plastic dish-pans to carry our plants from seedbed to field, and I tell people to only dig up what they think they can transplant in half an hour, so that plants don’t sit around for too long. Push the trowel into the soil, using the dominant hand, push it forwards, shake a plant loose from the clumps in the dish-pan with the other hand, and slip a plant in behind the trowel. Pull out the trowel, keeping it in your hand while you close the soil against the stem with your planting hand and the trowel. (Efficient workers keep a hand on the trowel at all times, never setting it down.) Move to the next spot and repeat. When setting out a large number of plants, water every 20-30 minutes if you don’t have drip irrigation running (a bit less often if you do) regardless of the number of plants set out. If the person is skilled and moving fast, and the weather is not outrageously hot or windy, I might let an hour go by before pausing to water. The advantage of getting a lot of plants in the ground proficiently and quickly might outweigh the need to water more often, as the plants are not having their roots exposed to the air for as long when they are planted fast. The hand-watering really helps the soil settle around the roots, and after that the damp soil can wick moisture from the irrigation towards the plant.
Aftercare: water, rowcover, shadecloth
Water your plants the day after transplanting, on days 3, 7 and 10, and then weekly, if it doesn’t rain when you’d like it to. Shadecloth draped over recently transplanted crops can help them recover sooner from the shock in hot sunny weather. We use 50% shade, in 6′ (1.8 m) width, with wire hoops to hold the shadecloth above the plants. This improves the airflow as well as reducing the abrasion or pressure damage done to the plants. The airflow through shadecloth is better than with floating rowcovers. ProtekNet allows good airflow too, and keeps bugs off.