Wednesday, March 13, 2013

To transplant or to direct seed

Burgundy okra does well with direct seeding.
You may be wondering, is it better to sow seeds directly into the soil and or is it better to transplant seedlings? While a lot of crops dictate the answer to this question (for instance, you'd only direct seed a carrot and only transplant a pepper), you have a choice with some crops such as greens, most culinary herbs, many beneficial flowers and Cucuberits (the squash, melon, and cucumber family). They typically do just as well either way—although Cucuberits can be finicky transplanters.

There are pros and cons to transplanting from both a sustainability standpoint and a plant quality standpoint. My growing style has been greatly influenced by a couple of my early farmer-teachers who were trained in Ecology Action's Grow Biointensive method. Students of the Biointensive method transplant most crops—even beets!—in part to save space in the garden. Transplants are deliberately placed so that they have just the right amount of room. (This is especially helpful with edible landscaping, as crops of complementary size, shape, texture and color can be easily interplanted, enhancing the aesthetics of the garden).

With direct seeding, spotty growth is inevitable and prime garden real estate is unused, which not only wastes space but leads to more evaporation of water from the bare ground. With closely spaced plants, carbon dioxide, which is important for plant growth, stays close to the ground in the leaf canopy.

Transplanting also gives the grower a jump on the growing season (and hence earlier yields), as the plants have a head start from their time indoors when it was too cold for them outside. However, sometimes the shock of transplanting into the garden is too much for the seedling to survive, so it's always good to have a back-up plant to replace it.

Eggplant is always transplanted.
The other potential benefit to transplanting is that it saves seeds. Ecology Action developed the Grow Biointensive method with the long-term view in mind—as the population increases, then it's vital that we use resources carefully, including seeds. Starting seeds in a controlled greenhouse-like environment ensures that nearly all seeds germinate. Since seedlings can be protected from pests, wind and other inclement weather in a plant nursery, they are more likely to survive at a young age.

I greatly appreciate this line of thinking, but when seeds are relatively cheap and abundant as they are now, I worry more about the resources required for producing transplants: the potting soil, energy, water, and plastic pots. Even though I reuse containers, I still must use a good amount of hot water, bleach and time to sanitize the pots to avoid diseases such as damping-off.

While I grow all my plants using organic principles, I have plans to make my nursery even more sustainable than it already is. (Stay tuned to announcements in future articles of how I am decreasing use of energy and water with some infrastructure additions). That way we can have the best of all worlds—strong healthy plants produced using limited resources. In the meantime, I like to encourage customers to give direct seeding a try, which is why I'm currently offering a special on direct seeding tutorials.

Since sustainability is a key part of my business, I always design my services so that resources are used in the smartest and most careful ways possible. My Pre-season Prep service, where customers order plants before the start of the season, ensures that I am growing just the right amount and I'm not producing plants without a future home. Your participation in these services helps set us on the path of producing food in the most sustainable way possible.