I attended a transplant trade recently where I was once again tempted by trays of beautiful seedlings, all of which were free for the taking but none of which I have the room to grow. I look forward to this annual event like football fans anticipate The Big Game, although there is no face paint involved in my pre-event ritual. (Well, I will admit to some minor fist pumping.)
It doesn't matter that I just spent the past two months tediously clucking over trays of brag-worthy tomatoes, the seeds of which I had searched out and collected a good month or so beforehand. There always seems to be a more unusual tomato (or 10) that can blow months of strategy out the window in a matter of minutes.
This year, though, I was ruthless; I arrived with two trays and left with one. My brain sees success, but my heart wants more.
I am an emotional gardener who is led more by an over-inflated sense of space than by steadfast strategizing. This means that I often grow too many of one plant and none of another. Thankfully, someone in my network of gardening friends will have whatever I forget in abundance. And if they can't help, I have been saved countless times from a summer without zucchini or a certain variety of basil by any number of local seasonal sales.
There used to be a time when seed starting was the only way to try weird and wacky varieties, but nowadays most sellers, from farmers markets to mainstream garden centres, have caught on to the trend toward heirlooms and are making them available alongside your run-of-the-mill 'Early Girl' tomatoes.
Transplants are the forgetful or tardy gardener's friend, but there are other reasons to skip seeds and buy transplants. When it comes to the economics of food gardening, it's wise to factor in the time it takes to grow from seed to transplant stage into the final cost. Slow-growing perennial herbs including oregano and thyme can take up to a few seasons before they're ready to harvest.
Others such as parsley grow quickly but can be a real pain to germinate. By that logic, it just makes good sense to plunk down a buck or three on a four-inch transplant and get to eating sooner than later.
And really, how much parsley are you planning to eat exactly? Seeds are cheap, but only restaurants and Gosselin-sized families will eat their way through a pack's worth of plants in a season. And while you can never have too many tomatoes, why stick to one variety when there are so many fascinating flavours to choose from?
Choosing Healthy Plants
It's easy to get carried away when there are shelves loaded with beautiful transplants just waiting to be taken home. However, even the most well-respected shops make mistakes, so you should always inspect underneath the leaves for insects before bringing a plant home.
While you're at it, check that the leaves are vibrant with fresh new growth emerging. Look underneath the pots and avoid plants with roots pouring out through the holes.
Root-bound plants have been under stress and can take longer to recover once planted. Resist blooming plants or those that are already fruiting.
The goal here is to first focus on growing healthy roots and leaves, followed by flowers and eventually fruit. If you do buy a plant with either, snip them off before planting - the reward for your patience will be a bigger harvest when the time is right.
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