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Great news! Our little corner of Upper Bucks County seems to be beyond the reach of frosty nights until fall. That’s right, our last expected frost date is May 15 around these parts. I might have just jinxed it, but we gotta talk transplanting.

So hopefully all of you have followed the directions in our first post, and now your windowsills and newly-built coldframes are full of little tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, basil, and all those other yummies that would quickly perish in cold weather. If they have at least one set of true leaves, the seedlings are ready for the next stage of life. Here’s what to do with them:

Hardening off seedlings on the porch

Step 1: Hardening Off

If they’ve been started indoors, those seedlings have led a very sheltered life thus far. They’ve never felt a northwestern wind, a driving rain, or the full force of a sunny day. Experiencing all of these new sensations can sometimes be quite a shock. Take care of your young ones and ease them into the elements. You can start indoors by opening the windows or putting a gentle fan on them or even jiggling the table they’re on. This kind of movement will encourage the seedlings to grow the sturdy stems necessary for life in the great outdoors.

A warm, cloudy day is the best time to expose them to the outside world. Place them in the shade, where they’ll be sheltered from strong winds. This first day they should only be out for a few hours. Gradually, over the course of a week, the length of time they’re left outside, as well as their exposure to full sunlight, is increased, until they are macho enough to be out day and night. After acclimating to nighttime temps, they should be ready to go in the ground.

Step 2: Transplanting

So hopefully while the little guys have been hardening off, you’ve been thinking up the best spot for them to live and prepared a bed for them. Depending on the plants’ needs, that might mean loosening the soil or mixing in organic matter, so the roots can start growing deep and strong as soon as they’re put in the ground. To avoid baking your tender transplants, choose a cloudy day or evening. We like to go on transplanting binges before rain, so the roots can get watered in nice and deep.

Hold like so, & tap the pot until the root ball releases

When you’ve figured out the best spot and spacing for the plant, cut a hole with a trowel into the soil, carefully release the seedling from the container, and place it into the earth, disturbing the roots as little as possible. It is well known that tomatoes can be transplanted deeper than the original soil line – they will send out roots at any point on their stem. Some research has shown that peppers and brassicas (cabbage family) can be planted a little deeper, but if in doubt, transplant to the original soil line. Fill in any gaps in the hole and pat the dirt around the roots, making sure the plant isn’t sunken below, or mounded above the soil level. Then, water your transplants deeply, promoting good contact between the roots and soil.

Step 3: Tending the Transplants

Keep your transplants well-watered for the first week or so. This will buffer them against shock and guard against withering in the hot sun. Some plants, like sweet potatoes, benefit greatly from some protection from direct sun at first. One trick is to cut the bottoms off of plastic pots and put them over  the plants for a few days. Let the transplants focus on root development for a couple of weeks before adding any manure or other nitrogenous fertilizer. Then just keep an eye on the weeds and water occasionally, and wait for the harvest!

Red Express cabbages in the great outdoors

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