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How to Harden Off and Plant Vegetable Seedlings
You can start vegetable seeds indoors in early spring to plant outside once the weather warms up. You should not, however, set the young plants directly into your vegetable garden from an indoor environment. Instead, starting about one week before transplanting them into the garden, take the plants outside in the daytime and bring them indoors again at night — especially if frost is possible. Gradually expose them to lower temperatures and more sunlight. This process, called “hardening off,” will prepare the seedlings for the fluctuations of light and temperature they will experience when planted in the garden.
Once your seedlings have been hardened off and the soil in your garden is warm and dry enough to be workable, you’re ready for transplanting. Keeping in mind that you want to disturb the roots of the plants as little as possible, follow these steps for transplanting:
- To reduce shock to transplants, water them and the ground before planting. If possible, transplant late in the afternoon or on a cloudy day.
- If your seedlings are in peat pots, tear off the top edge so it can’t act as a wick and dry out the rootball. If they aren’t in plantable pots, tip the pots upside down and tap on the bottom to remove the rootballs without touching them. Don’t pull the plants out by the stem.
- Dig a hole with a shovel, set the transplant in place and gently firm the soil around the plant. If your garden soil needs improving, add some garden soil mix with the existing soil before transplanting.
- Make a small temporary basin with the soil around the plant, then water lightly to settle the soil and remove any air pockets that may be left around the rootball. To help prevent transplant shock and get the seedlings off to a good start, mix liquid plant food with the water and apply it around and on the leaves of firmed-in transplants. Repeat 7 days later, then begin feeding with an all purpose plant food every other week.
- Continue to water frequently enough to keep the soil moist until the roots become established.
- Protect the transplants from frost, if necessary, by covering them at night with plastic foam cups, coffee cans, or plastic film. Remove the covering during the day to prevent undue heat buildup.