If you’ve been playing along at home after reading my last post on starting seeds indoors, you should now have some healthy little seedlings.
Congratulations! They’re nearly ready to be planted in your garden.
But not so fast. Being inside, protected from the elements, and growing in ideal conditions under 16 hours of perfect light every day is just a wee bit different than being outside in the garden, exposed to a temperamental Vermont spring.
You’ll need to prepare your seedlings for this transition so they don’t die from shock (literally!).
Just as you would with any change in your own routine or environment, you’ll need to introduce the seedlings to change gradually. This is called hardening them off.
Hardening off can take anywhere from a one to two weeks. If you’re pressed for time, just follow the advice I give below for about a week. If you have a little more time, stretch it out to two weeks to ensure you have the best-prepared seedlings for planting. Over this one- to two-week period, you’ll be gradually exposing your seedlings to increasing levels of of sun and wind exposure, as well as temperature fluctuations, which will all be much more like the outdoor environment in which they will live for the summer.
Start out by locating a protected spot (i.e., no strong wind and only dappled sunlight) in your yard. This will not be your unshaded patio but more likely your covered front porch, if you have one. I start out on my screened porch. Move your seedlings out into this spot, exposing them to the elements for just a couple of hours, then move them back indoors. Repeat this procedure, each day introducing a little bit more sunlight and longer exposure (you may need to move them to different parts of the yard), including leaving them outside overnight near the end of the period (as long as the nighttime temperatures are above 50 degrees).
Additionally, try to cut back on watering as well, but be sure not to let the seedlings get so dry that they wilt. You’re helping prepare them for the unpredictable “watering” schedule of Mother Nature, who will be less reliable than you were during their indoor sprouting time.
One last tip: avoid putting the seedling cups directly on the ground, as the tender shoots may be nibbled by birds or small animals while you’re not watching.
Once your seedlings have been hardened off, they are ready for direct planting into your garden. If you can, choose a cloudy or drizzly day for planting, to help the seedlings avoid the hot shock of full sun during transplantation. If you can’t avoid a sunny day, consider using fabric row covers for a day or two or planting in the very late afternoon to help ease the transition.