Summer in the Garden: Potting Up

Getting seedlings ready for planting

By Wes Henry/Gardening Columnist Published:

Editor’s note: This is the second part of Wes Henry’s series on home gardening from seeds to harvest. In March we saw and read about his use of cold frames to start seeds. Today, Wes “pots up” those seedlings in preparation for May’s planting when the danger of frost has passed.

We’re about two to three weeks from the statistical end of frost in Kentucky and it will be then that the seedlings of tomatoes from my cold frames will have been potted and growing long enough to be ready for planting.

It was mid-February when the ground in the frame was turned over in clumps and, with the lid remaining shut, was warmed by the late winter sun in preparation for starting seedlings to “pot up” for planting in the garden. 

By the second week of March, before the full moon, a concentrated scattering of tomato seeds was made in the freshly pulverized and smoothed seedbed. Adding a quarter of an inch of dirt to cover the seeds, they were then watered and the clear glass lid closed.

Ten days later the seedlings emerged. Being careful to regulate the heat by lifting the lid, the sprouts grew their first true leaves. A knife was then used to slice the green mass into manageable sections to begin potting into individual cell packs April 17.

The medium used for the cell packs was potting soil that can be purchased at garden centers or made. A simple recipe is equal parts of compost, garden topsoil and sand or perlite. It is not recommended that garden soil alone be used because of the risk of disease from soil-borne pathogens infecting the immature and tender plants.

“Plain ol’ dirt” can harden, too, and crack when it dries from too much watering. 

Before potting-up, the individual seedlings are separated by carefully breaking apart the bunch in effort that some dirt remain with the root system to lessen shock to the plant.

To encourage additional rooting and discourage the plant from becoming leggy, plants were potted deeper than they originally were growing — to the first leaves — and watered in well to not only give the plant the moisture it needs, but also to settle the soil firmly around the roots and close any air pockets that would dry out the roots.

After potting and watering, they were returned to the cold frame where diligence is a must to regulate the temperature (even on cloudy days), water, and have at hand the covers like old sleeping bags ready for those spring cold snaps that may come like the one we experienced April 15 and 16.

In extreme cases of nighttime temps in the 20s, a single incandescent light bulb is added insurance but worth every penny of the $3 for the fixture and bulb. All done, the seedlings will become hardy, self-raised, and full-fledged transplants ready for the “frost free” plot of May.

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