You buy a seedling.
You dig a hole. You place your fingers around the stem and gently flip the pot upside down, dislodging plant and soil.
You carefully tip the leaves skyward and lower the cube of roots and soil into the hole, pulling surrounding soil into the empty space. Then you tamp down the soil with your hands, right?
We’ve been doing it forever but it’s the wrong thing to do and there are several reasons why.
It all starts with the conditions under which seedlings are grown.
The state of a seedling
Commercially available seedlings start out life in as perfect an environment as possible. Protected by greenhouse walls or hoop shelters, temperatures, soil, moisture levels, nutrient availability, everything is working in its favor. Add sunlight and water and those seeds germinate and start growing like crazy. Then they get loaded into flats, which get loaded onto trucks. Those trucks are dark and bouncy. Roots and leaves get rattled around a bit, before being moved a few more times to end up in new lighting, new temperatures, and environments where people pick them up and put them down, repeatedly. Finally, they get in a car, go home, and [hopefully] spend some time in quarantine before being designated some garden real estate.
Even seedlings started at home end up in a pot that they are about to outgrow, if they haven't become root bound already.
As delicate root hairs reach the walls of their containerized world, they twist and turn, looking for more room. Eventually, all those twists and turns can get crowded and a little abrasive. Root hairs break off very easily.
At 1/10 the diameter of a human hair, root hairs start forming right after a seed germinates. These tiny growths profoundly increase the surface area of the root system, making the roots better at absorbing water and nutrients, anchoring the plant, and facilitating microbe interactions. When these delicate hairs break off, they can’t do their job. It is the damage done to root hairs during transplanting that causes most of the wilting associated with transplant shock.
Water and gravity
Instead of tamping down the soil and breaking off millions of valuable root hairs, let water and gravity do the job the way nature intended: disrupted soil gets rained on, rain drops collect and make soil heavier, drawing particles down into some air pockets while leaving important macropores and micropores, that allow air, water, and roots to move through the soil, intact. Your watering can or gentle garden hose spray do the same thing. No tamping down required.
As you add seedlings to your garden, resist the urge to crush those delicate root hairs and mud them in, instead. Then, tuck them in with a nice blanket of mulch, for good measure.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!