Monday, April 13, 2009

The Transplant Conundrum

The gardener's holy grail, right up against yield and taste or quality, is getting the maximum out of the growing season. Season extenders like row covers, plastic mini-greenhouses, and even hoophouses have become popular. So it seems natural to get a jump on the season by starting plants indoors and transplanting seedlings once the weather is more favorable. Another garden blogger in my area reported planting her kohlrabi by direct seeding and I proposed a race. We planted at about the same time - my germination log says I planted Kolibri (Johnny's Select Seeds) on March 20 and her blog report is dated March 22.

The seedlings (now about 3 weeks old) were pricked out some time ago and yesterday I put them into the cold frame for hardening up. They mostly have two true leaves by now. I'll probably plant them into the row in about another two weeks, depending on how the weather goes. My cold frame has an automatic opener so that when the internal temperature gets too warm, it opens to vent. Meanwhile the seedlings are being treated to fluctuations in temperature (but not below freezing) and real sunshine. I know from past experience that they will really take off once into the row.

But as simple and elegant as this process (which I use for all my brassicas, or cole crops) is, I was startled to find that it is controversial.

Recently I purchased a book, "Gardening When It Counts", subtitled "Growing Food in Hard Times". Its stated purpose is to explain subsistence gardening, that is, growing vegetables out of necessity rather than fashion. The main point - and a valuable one - is to use plant spacing rather than intensive gardening, to reduce necessary inputs of fertilizer and water. Unfortunately the book also contains a number of diatribes. One of them is against the use of transplants. The author, Steve Solomon (who founded Territorial Seed Company and now lives in Tasmania, apparently for the fine gardening to be done there), has nothing good to say about use of transplants for any but the most frost-sensitive plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants). I was particularly dismayed to see his criticism of growing brassicas from transplants. He claims that the harvest is not much advanced and complains that everything becomes mature at once. He hit home with his mention of cabbages splitting, since I've had that problem. But his advice to plant just a few seeds every week for a while sounds burdensome.

I first saw the practice of growing cabbage from transplants in visiting fields in Wisconsin where cabbage was grown for commercial kraut production. They planted transplants as early as possible, using a mechanical planter. I've always done it and been happy with the result. So I'll probably continue, but I'm going to be more observant. In particular, I'll be interested to know how my gardening acquaintance's kohlrabi advances. I'm guessing that right now her kohlrabi looks a lot like the lettuce I planted on March 18 and grew under row cover. The little seedlings are just now beginning to put out a true leaf.