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How to Harden Off Seedlings

April 15, 2015 | By | Reply More

how to harden off seedlings

Lettuce seedlings getting their first REAL sunshine

From the moment one of my vegetable seeds cracks open to reveal that brand-spankin’-new bright green stem, I am in love. The seedlings I grow in my basement are like family – family that gives back in the form of food. These seedlings are coddled for weeks in the best environment I can create in my basement. They have bright fluorescent light, a gentle breeze from a fan, and consistent moisture.

Making the transition from this idyllic environment to the great outdoors with its extremes and uncertainties can be challenging for young plants. When you learn how to harden off seedlings, you give them the best chance to make the transition gradually and safely. Even the most intense grow lights cannot rival the power of real sunlight, and hardening off gets your seedlings used to being outdoors.

I don’t follow a structured schedule for hardening off. Instead, I get started, monitor the plant’s health along the way, and make adjustments as needed. I’ve taken as long as 2 weeks to harden off seedlings and as little as 4 days.

Usually, the first plants I harden off are my lettuce starts in the spring. Because I like to have a long harvest of lettuce, I plant my starts at the same time that I direct sow seeds so I have a steady supply. In April, I begin setting my tray of lettuce seedlings in a protected area in the shade. The first day, I only leave them outside for about 30 minutes. Then, every day, I increase the outdoor time.

I will begin introducing some direct sun gradually, usually this works well if I happen to be doing some garden chores outside. Morning sun is less intense than afternoon sun. The first time you set your plants in a sunny location, be careful and check on them often. If the sun is too intense for the seedlings, the leaves will literally begin to burn just as if you held a match to them. Don’t let this happen to your babies! If you see any leaf scalding, move your plants immediately to a shaded area or back indoors.

Over a period of about 7-10 days, you should be able to leave your plants outside for longer periods of time, gradually increasing so your plants can stay outside for most of the day and night. The day you plan to set them into the garden permanently, wait until just before dusk. Transplanting is stressful enough for these young plants without having to deal with blazing direct sun right away. Watch the forecast for the next several days. If mostly sunny conditions are expected, it may be necessary to also cover your seedlings with a garden cloth that filters some of the light coming in. I get my garden covers from Gardener’s Supply and they have been great for helping my seedlings get off to a safe and healthy start.

When you harden off seedlings properly, they’ll perform much better in the garden. And, you won’t waste all the effort and time you’ve invested in starting and coddling your plants by putting them outdoors too soon.

Do you have a schedule for hardening off seedlings or do you “wing it” like me?



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Category: General, Home and Garden, Kitchen Garden

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