Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Nurture the sapling

Updated November 02, 2014


Chives, Photos by the writer
Chives, Photos by the writer

It is wonderful to know and to see just how many gardeners amongst you are slowly but surely awarding a priority to organic cultivation of vegetables, herbs and fruit and relegating what are purely ornamentals, glorious as they might be, to the ‘back-burner’.

Many of you though, judging from the questions which continue to pour in, have a tendency to get more than a little overly enthusiastic when undertaking the delicate task of transplanting vegetables — other seedlings too — out of seed beds / pots / trays and in to their ‘permanent’ growing positions. This ‘over-enthusiasm’ results in an otherwise avoidable loss of delicate young plants that have hardly had time to enjoy the bliss of living before, as a direct result of mishandling, they give up the ghost and fade away.

If you have followed suggested sowing instructions, this month is one in which there should be many seedlings ready for transplantation — with yet more seeds to sow of course. It is the perfect time to revisit how to go about transplanting those seedlings which, with proper care and attention, should provide lots of healthy, organic food to be relished over the coming weeks and months.

Let’s begin with those essential seeds, some of them of unusual varieties, which quite often enthusiastic gardeners have gone to great lengths to procure.

Planting distances matter, Photos by the writer
Planting distances matter, Photos by the writer

Sowing seeds is not a difficult process but neither is it a matter of simply scattering seeds at will and expecting a trouble free, bountiful reward. Different varieties of seeds require to be sown at different soil / compost depths and at varying distances apart: sown too deep, many seeds completely fail to germinate; sown not deep enough and they can dry out and die before so much as a single shoot emerges. Sown too close and seedlings do not have room for individual development but grow inordinately fast, unhealthily tall and weak as they have to battle with each other for essential sunlight, soil nutrients and water. They may look good en masse but when separated for transplanting, they do not have enough strength to stand up, let alone survive and become the productive plants they were naturally meant to be.

For those sowing in winter, there is just one rule of thumb: go slowly, gently and patiently

It is, therefore, of extreme importance that instructions about sowing depths and distances — these are generally given on the seed packets — are strictly adhered to so that resultant seedlings can get off to a good, strong start in life.

Do not, no matter what the temptation, transplant seedlings before they are large enough to handle it. This is, in most cases, when they have developed four to six true leaves above the original pair of weak ‘seed leaves’ — these seed leaves are the first to appear when a seed germinates and, in many instances, fade away to insignificance as seedlings grow.

When you are 100per cent sure that seedlings are ready for transplantation, then firstly water the previously prepared garden area, pots/containers, in which they are destined to go. Transplanting delicate seedlings into unprepared or dry soil and then, after drowning them with water, expecting them to survive and to flourish is a complete waste of time, energy and potential plants.

Do not undertake any transplanting during the heat of the day — even at this time of the year, noon heat should, as far as transplanting seedlings is concerned, be avoided. Instead, only carry out your transplanting duties late in the afternoon and evening as this gives the seedlings the coolness of the night ahead during which to adapt, to a certain degree, to transplantation shock. Morning transplantation should be avoided as the seedlings then face an immediate assault from the sun.

Never forget that seedlings are delicate new lives and must be treated as such if they are to survive.

Handle seedlings with care, at all stages. When removing them from their seed trays / beds / pots, avoid as much root damage as possible and also leave as much soil / compost attached to individual seedling roots as you can. This minimises transplantation shock and increases survival rates.

Do not simply make a hole, stick in a seedling, push soil / compost around it, flood it and expect it to cope. Each and every individual seedling needs to be transplanted with patience and care which is where, unfortunately, the over-enthusiasm as displayed by so many gardeners and especially gardeners in a hurry, decimates the day.

Slowly, gently, patiently are — all other factors considered — the key words to successful seedling transplantation. This rule applies for all seedlings, be they of vegetables, herbs, shrubs, trees and other, purely ornamental, plants.

Now, having — I sincerely hope — shed some light on transplantation, let’s take a look at seeds to be sown this month:

Vegetables: Hearting and loose leaf cabbage for winter and spring harvesting, cauliflower and don’t forget purple ones, spinach, Swiss chard / leaf beet, pak choi, Chinese cabbage, chopsuey greens, giant red mustard, mustard mizuna, fast growing varieties of broccoli and calabresse, kale, rutabaga / swedes, Chinese and Japanese varieties of winter radish, French radish, spring onions, beans, peas, turnips, carrots, beetroot, potatoes, celery, chicory, endive and lettuce of all kinds, plus, as long as you can provide cold weather protection should it become necessary, tomatoes.

Herbs: Parsley and do keep in mind that flat leaved parsley has a tendency to grow faster than curly varieties, both blue and white flowered borage, basil — this only in the south of the country as basil needs warmth, lemon balm, watercress, dill, aniseed, chamomile, chervil, coriander, chives, garlic chives, oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, rosemary, lavender, various mints but do try to include apple mint and lemon mint and many more.

Flowers: Sweet peas, larkspur, calendulas, nasturtiums, Queen Anne’s lace, lots and lots of glorious poppies, a sea of blue ageratum, white alyssum, candytuft, Virginia stocks etc.

Bulbs: There is still time to put in some of those enticing — especially the fragrant ones — mainly imported and rather costly, bulbs with heady Dutch hyacinths, breathtaking freesias, dazzling tulips, hardy iris, eye-catching crocus, colourful anemones, dancing daffodils and perfumed drifts of ‘nargis’ topping the list.

General jobs this month include: Pruning back and feeding roses, vines and shrubs in general. Root division of overcrowded perennials such as day lilies and hostas. Propagating carnations from cuttings. Disbudding show bench chrysanthemums and preparing planting holes for those additional shrubs, vines, climbers, creepers and trees which you are going to make a start on putting in next month!

Please continue sending your gardening queries to Remember to include your location. Answers to selected questions will appear in a future issue of the magazine. This takes time. The writer will not respond directly by e-mail. E-mails with attachments will not be opened.

Please note: The writer’s garden is not open to the public.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 2nd, 2014