By Matt Gibson
Growing from seed is a great practice for gardeners which allows them access to a wide variety of plants to add to growing areas each season. Starting from seed also allows the gardener to be a part of the entire process as creator and caretaker. Growing plants from seed to maturity is a fairly uncomplicated procedure. With a little bit of know-how and understanding, you can incorporate seed starting into your gardening tool kit.
However, as with any new skill that you learn, there are a few precautions every gardener should be knowledgeable about when growing from seed. One of these is hardening off the seedlings before transplanting them outdoors in the spring or fall. When the seedlings are ready to be moved to their permanent home, be it container or garden bed, they need to be hardened off (or gradually adjusted to their new environments) properly to help ensure their successful transition from the controlled indoor environment to a more unpredictable outdoor location.
When growers start their seeds indoors during the winter (for spring planting) or summer months (for fall planting), the seeds are germinating and beginning their growth cycle in a controlled environment. Everything is the same day in and day out. The temperature is most likely around 70 to 80 degrees fahrenheit. The light source, be it indirect sunlight from a windowsill, or an indoor grow light system, is the same everyday, in both duration and intensity. Environmental disturbances like rain, wind, or snow, are non-existent indoors.
The process of hardening off your seedlings is gradually exposing them to the elements before replanting them outside. There are a few guidelines that one should follow when learning how to get your plants accustomed to drastic environmental change, but they can easily be summarized and performed in four simple steps. The process involves a lot of lifting and shifting and is relatively time consuming, but your plants will have a much higher chance of surviving outdoors if hardened off correctly.
Your indoor plants which you cultivated from seed, have never been exposed to the harsh conditions of the great outdoors, and in turn, have yet to develop any defense systems that can protect them from the elements and keep themselves protected. If you spent all winter inside your home with the windows closed and the curtains drawn, your eyes will take some time to adjust, and your skin will most likely burn from overexposure to direct sunlight. A plant is no different. So, in order to get your plants ready for the coming move, follow the following four simple steps to assuring that your baby seedlings will be ready for whatever mother nature throws their way.
Step One – Prepare for Transportation
Move your seedlings into a box or tray in order to ease the burden of transportation during the hardening process, as you will be shuffling your plants around more than usual. Alternatively, you might decide to plant the seedlings into larger containers for them to grow into while enjoying their new digs. If you are planning to make their permanent homes in a garden bed, however, we suggest that you wait until the hardening process is complete before replanting each plant entirely.
Step Two – Choose a Sheltered, Shady Location Outdoors
You may not be prepared for your kids to leave the home, but come growing season, it’s time to put your seedlings (plant kids) in a bed so that they can grow to reach their full potential. The first spot you pick should be in a somewhat sheltered and most-importantly, shaded outdoor location, perhaps next to a wall or under an awning on the porch. The shade is an essential component, whether you are growing a shade-loving or sun-loving, heat-tolerant species, as tiny seedlings would quickly burn to a crisp if they did not get some form of protection when first introduced to the outdoors. The spot you pick has one purpose, to slowly and carefully introduce your new plants to the fluctuating temperature shifts that commonly take place out in the wild beyond, such as the dramatic shift in heat when day turns to night, minus the direct sunlight exposure.
Step Three – Begin Gradual Exposure to Temperature Variation
Each day, in the early morning or evening, bring the box, tray, or plant containers to the shaded location for just a few short hours. Then, bring them back inside for the evening. Repeat this step daily, gradually allowing the plants to be outside for a little longer as each day passes by, remembering to bring them inside at night. After approximately 7-10 days, the box, or collection of new plants, should be left outdoors all day long, in its sheltered location, but returned indoors during the night.
Step Four – Introduce Permanent/Exposed Location
Eventually, most of your young plants will have to fend for themselves against the sunlight just as they learned how to adjust to unregulated temperature shifts. On day 10, begin to introduce a few hours of sunlight to your transitioning plants each day. After a bit of sunbathing, bring them back to their sheltered location for the evening, and indoors at the end of the night. Again, repeat this process daily, gradually leaving the plant in the sun for a few additional hours each day. In a little over a week, you can leave them outside overnight as well.
That’s All Folks!
After all steps have been completed and about 12-14 days have passed, the hardening process is over and your baby plants are ready for most anything. At this time, your seedlings are ready to be transplanted into the ground in their permanent home. Your once tiny seedlings are all growing up so fast. They are now ready to sprout up into maturity, blossom, or produce fruit, all while enjoying the sun and the elements, thanks to your invaluable help and assistance.