Your seedlings are happy and thriving, and the temperature is starting to warm up… now what?
Well first of all, don’t let a mid-March warm snap fool you (we weren’t fooled this year, mostly because it never warmed up in March). You should base your planting schedule on your average last frost date (there are a number of places you can find this date), which for us here in northern Ohio (zone 5/6) is toward the end of May. (That means you probably shouldn’t be planting your tender vegetables out in April – recipe for disaster. Some plants, like the brassicas, will do okay with some light frost, but tomatoes, not so much.)
But (another but? I thought this was easy…) you can’t just move the tomatoes from your basement and stick them out in the ground on a clear, sunny day – another recipe for disaster. Now is the time for that final step in your seed starting journey, the hardening and transplanting process.
Remember when we talked about how the sun is so much stronger than any artificial light you’re using? Well, it still is, and as you get closer to summer and the angle is more direct, it gets even stronger. So taking your plants from a gentle, controlled environment and throwing them out in the elements is generally not in their best interest. What would happen if you dragged your pasty-white self (which hasn’t seen the sun in six months) out into the front yard on a sunny and warm May afternoon, and you laid there in the buff for eight hours? Sorry for the painful visual, but that’s about how your plants feel too.
So to get around that, we harden them off first. Simply put, this means that we just put them outside for a little while longer each day, so they get used to the new environment and start to toughen up. Find a sunny spot that’s out of harm’s way (dogs, kids, chickens, whatever).
I generally start about a week before I’m ready to transplant, and the first day, they may only be out for an hour. The process is weather-dependent to some degree – if it’s cloudy, you can probably leave them out for a little longer than if it’s a cloudless sky. But even if it’s cloudy, don’t think that you can leave the seedlings out all day without checking on them – you should keep a close eye on things for the first couple days, because they may wilt fast, and they also dry out a lot quicker if they’re in small trays or pots.
Add a little more time each day, and by the end of the week, you should be ready to transplant!
And now the moment you’ve been waiting for – taking those little plants that you’ve nurtured from seed, and putting them out in the garden. This part’s pretty easy if you keep a few things in mind.
First, dig a small hole about the size of pot that the plant is in. Most seedlings should be planted at the same depth that they’re currently growing (tomatoes are an exception, and are usually planted deep, sometimes with more than half of the stem underground).
Next, tip the pot onto its side, so the plant is resting in one of your hands. Gently squeeze the outside of the pot to loosen things up a bit. The key here is not being too rough. If you can, you want to let gravity do the work, and let the plant slide out into your hand, roots, soil, and all. If it needs a little help, gently pull the stem at the soil line. Please do not pull the plant by the top leaves. You’re likely to just rip the top half off, which doesn’t make for a happy you.
Finally, place the plant in the hole you just dug, fill in the hole, and gently (there’s that word again) tamp the soil around the seedling. Give it a good glug of water to really get things going, and check on them regularly for the first few days until they’re well-established. And with that, congratulations!
See the rest of the Seed Starting Series here: