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Transplant or sow direct

Transplanting is about setting rooted plants in the ground. I describe my special methods – how to do it quickly, and successfully.

I compare this process with sowing direct. It’s quicker to put 100 seeds in the ground, compared to 100 plants. However, growth starts later and takes longer, and there is often more pest damage, resulting in later harvests and empty spaces. I therefore recommend raising plants for the majority of vegetables.



When demonstrating how I transplant module-grown plants during courses at Homeacres, participants’ reactions are often, ‘Wow, that was quick!’, and, ‘You don’t fill in the holes!’ Transplanting can be simple and rapid when your soil is healthy – soft, yet firm – and plants are set in reasonably deep.

Having a decent dibber helps – you can make one from an old tool handle. A long-handled dibber enables you to draw straight planting lines along beds, with a better view of the planting pattern and spacing while dibbing holes (see Lesson 9).

Before dibbing holes, I use the dibber to mark my rows, in particular along bed edges – straight lines ensure equidistant spacing and make jobs easier, such as watering and covering
A planting of Filderkraut cabbage in mid-June, after broad beans had finished and we had cleared their plants
A close-up of celery and beetroot, transplanted a week earlier and well buried; this is July and it was very dry – deep planting gives stability and holds moisture

The keys to good and quick transplanting are:

  • Make holes a little deeper and wider than the module, pot and roots in general. This means that some, or most, of the stem is buried; all plants I have met are happy with this.
  • Push down firmly on the rootball to ensure contact, without hurting the root system – roots like a firm medium in which to anchor and grow. For modules,  we press down with two fingers, one on either side of the stem. It needs just a few seconds for each transplant.
  • Do not fill in the residual hollow; there is no need because watering or rain will do this, and you can then transplant more rapidly.
I have dibbed holes, and we have broad bean plants sown four weeks earlier, raised in small modules and ready to transplant in early winter
You need a hole slightly larger than the rootball, so it can slide in without root damage; dibbed holes have a ‘hole’ under the roots and this causes no problems
It is a quick process – simply push down with forefinger and middle finger on the rootball to ensure that it’s deep enough, and that the module sides are in contact with soil in the bed; there is no need to fill the hole after transplanting

Size and age of transplants

Small is beautiful, and means you ‘don’t tell a plant it’s been moved’! Just be sure to grow your seedlings in good compost and in as much light as possible so they are stocky and strong – this makes them less interesting to slugs. Small plants, rather than tiny seedlings, transplanted at the right time of year in a tidy, no dig garden, should not be eaten by these pests.

  • All transplants suffer ‘shock’ for a few days, from suddenly being in a new environment, in new soil and with new neighbours; it makes them weaker, and vulnerable to pests such as slugs and aphids.
  • Small transplants adapt more quickly than large ones, because there is less of a check to growth. (This also applies to shrubs and trees – small trees are a best buy, because they are cheaper and grow more quickly.)

The age of transplants at Homeacres averages four to five weeks in spring, three weeks or less in summer, and three to four weeks in autumn. The photos below are to give you clues about the ease and beauty of planting small, the advantages being:

Less space is needed for propagation.

  1. Propagation takes less time.
  2. Transplanting is quicker.
  3. New growth is faster and stronger.

There are two exceptions to planting small. One is when you are waiting for space to become available in summer, such as for leeks after potatoes, and cabbage after broad beans. Another is for warmth-loving plants such as tomatoes, when you are waiting until it’s warm enough to set them outside.

We transplant almost all vegetables at these sizes, straight from small modules and without potting on; this is 19th August – spinach, mustards and salad rocket
Mid-August – new plantings of salad rocket, mustards and Chinese cabbage, two weeks since we sowed them in module cells
Transplanting module plants of chicory in late July, three weeks after sowing

Tools – trowel and long dibber

These are useful tools. You can even use a dibber for drawing drills to sow seeds.


When you transplant small, the dibber is your go-to tool for making holes. It’s so easy and quick to use in the soft and non-sticky surface of no dig beds.

Planting in dry conditions is more challenging. Sometimes we water a bed before dibbing, if it’s so dry and dusty that the holes do not hold their shape. In the summer months we always water after planting. For wide-spaced plants, just water around the rootball of each one, rather than a whole bed.

Dibbing holes for autumn salads
Pushing a clump of module-raised leeks into each hole; the holes fill a little when we water


Larger plants, in 7 or 9 cm / 3 or 3.5 in pots, need a trowel to make their hole, which requires more bending over and more time than dibbing. Aim to make holes as neatly as possible – it’s quicker, and causes less damage to soil life.

I slide the trowel vertically downwards, to cut four sides of a square that is shaped to the pot. The hole is deeper than the pot, so that stems are below soil level; even the lower leaves can be below the surface.

I appreciate the efficiency of copper trowels because they slide into soil so easily and last for many years since the blade does not rust. In the UK they cost more than a steel trowel, but it’s worth it if you use one often.

  • When planting potatoes, you do not need a trench! It’s one of many gardening myths, because harvests are excellent from simply using the trowel to make a slit for each seed potato.
  • Seed potatoes do not have to be chitted but, if they are, the chits tell you which way up to pop the potato in, with the chits mostly pointing upwards.
Using a trowel to make a slit for planting a seed potato – I pull the trowel towards me and hold the slit open
The seed potato now slides down easily and I push as well, aiming for its top to be 5 cm / 2 in below surface level
With the potato planted, I pull a bit of compost over the indent and tap it down with the trowel

Support with strings

Many warmth-loving plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, peppers and melons can be grown as cordons. You can grow them up a string under cover, by twisting the main stems around the string and removing all new sideshoots.

  • You don’t need to tie the string to a stick or stem at its bottom end, saving time, because roots do a great job of anchoring it in place. Just have a knot at the end, to stop it sliding up and out.
First I cut a square hole in the compost, just a little larger than the pot; then I place an aubergine plant on top of the string, push firmly down and fill with compost around the rootball
Mid-May – after clearing winter salad and tying strings to the wire above, I am transplanting cucumbers, sown four weeks earlier in the greenhouse and potted on
Out of sight at the bottom, the string has a knot on its end to help anchor it under the rootball

Comparing growth speed – spring and summer

Don’t be discouraged in spring, when growth of new transplants is slow. For example, in the photos below, it has taken almost two months since transplanting to have this amount of growth, and harvests of only radish and turnip.

However, after May Day, or later if frosts continue, you should see a huge surge of growth, as long as your plants ‘got their feet under the table’ in late March and April.

23rd March, and eight days after setting out small plants, including potatoes; fleece over all the time
A morning of frost on 6th May – eight weeks of growth mostly under fleece, which now is only on the potatoes

See the different growth speed in the photos below. New plantings were again small, but in no time at all they were coming to harvest. This is another reason to keep sowing in summer, for the rapid and gratifying results. Also, it’s better for soil to be full of plant roots in the growing season, and you have more to eat.

The pale mulch is a digestate of grass and maize, the solids that remain after anaerobic digestion to create methane. This material did not increase growth or help with water retention here, even in the dry summer. Also it decomposed very slowly, appearing to be unpopular with soil life.

  • I notice that digestate is sometimes sold with the description ‘compost’, or even ‘organic compost’. This is not correct, and my several experiences of using it suggest that decent results happen only after a minimum of six months of it maturing in a pile, in a damp state.

15th July – new plantings of multisown beetroot and French bean in singles or doubles
August in dry heat – I trialled a mulch of digestate and noticed little difference; we watered twice a week
25th August shows the rapid growth of these same beetroot and French beans, centre

Two examples of transplanting

Here are more examples showing the small size of transplants that I recommend. Sometimes your time available means setting out plants a little smaller than would be ideal, sometimes a little larger – you have a window of opportunity of about a week.

  • In early spring, there is more scope to delay plantings because growth is still slow in modules, with plants less likely to suffer from the delay.


Brassica plants are tough and they transplant fine, even if kept too long in modules. The ones in the photos below, were transplanted on 22nd March, having been sown on 12th February in the conservatory; they could have been transplanted a week earlier, or ten days later.

Another option for spring harvests of cabbage and calabrese is to sow in late August, for transplanting in late September. The overwintering plants then grow fast by March, and come ready long before spring-sown plants. They do, however, need continual protection for several months, mostly from pigeons and rabbits.

I used the dibber and gave it a wiggle for each deep hole, to widen them for calabrese plants which are quite large and have long stems
Plantings of calabrese and cabbage, with coriander and dill further up, all straight from the greenhouse and then fleeced over
October – spring cauliflower Aalsmeer for a May harvest, with a mesh cover for the winter ahead


Spinach seedlings amaze me for looking so tender, yet growing so strongly. Use Medania for summer sowings in early August; cropping can continue until the following spring.

Two-week-old spinach in August – it can be transplanted at this size
After just three days, the new plantings of spinach and land cress are looking fine
Four weeks later at the end of September, and there are many leaves to pick

Sowing seeds direct

As mentioned in the previous chapter, the reason for direct sowing carrots and parsnips is our desire for a straight and long taproot, the part that we eat.

These photos show the results of a comparison trial, where carrot seedlings were both transplanted and sown direct at the same time to compare the growth of their taproots.

The other two vegetables that I sow direct are potatoes and garlic, because their ‘seed’ is so large, and I find no benefit from raising them to transplant.

A carrot trial – seedlings ready to be transplanted (half the tray has 50% vermiculite)
The same Berlicum carrots, transplanted 84 days earlier; notice the forked taproots
Berlicum carrots sown direct at the same time and showing long, straight taproots

It’s such an act of faith, dropping tiny seeds into empty spaces. I still worry about them, even after doing it so many times, especially with carrots. This is because their tiny leaves are slow to appear, ten days on average. Once above ground, they are the food of choice for slugs, not to mention rabbits.

Seeds germinate very well in surface compost. Parsnip seed is usually cited as being difficult to germinate, but since 1983, in no dig beds, I have always had excellent results. This is even in wet and cold springs, when many diggers are lamenting their failure to find any parsnip seedlings amongst masses of new weeds.

  • When it’s dry on the surface at sowing time, I walk on the bed after sowing, to ensure contact of seed with the moist compost below.

No dig reduces slug numbers, by leaving ground beetles undisturbed, for example, so they continue to eat slugs!

22nd March – sowing carrots in drills, drawn in compost by a hoe
It was dry, and I walked on the bed after sowing to conserve moisture
Early July – a final harvest of the carrots, Nantes on the left and Sugarsnax on the right

If a bed is really dry, it is best to draw drills and then fill them with water, but not to water the rest of the bed at this stage. The surface moisture would mostly evaporate before being available to new seedlings. Your aim is to ensure good contact between the seeds and the moist compost or soil below them. This worked well for some spinach that I sowed in otherwise dry soil, between tomatoes that were growing and already well rooted in the bed. In fact, drawing the drills to sow spinach caused a little damage to the tomato plants’ surface roots, but there was no visible effect on their subsequent growth (see photo below).

An exception is with intersowings between moisture-loving vegetables, as in the photos  below. I had pulled drills for carrots between lettuce, which we were still picking weekly in mid-June when rain was scarce. The lettuce needed a lot of moisture, so we watered the whole bed every three days or so, depending on the weather.

Our regular watering was too light, and the lettuce used much of it before some of the carrot seeds could germinate. Then lettuce plants started rising to flower in July, when we twisted them out before they grew tall, leaving the carrots growing for autumn harvest and winter storage. I saw more carrot seeds germinating after removing the lettuce.

I used a hoe to pull out drills for an intersow of spinach seeds between tomatoes, outside
Mid-June is the time to sow carrots for eating in winter – I drew shallow drills between the lettuce
31st July, and seven weeks since these carrots were sown between lettuce
sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems