If you grow your own vegetable seedlings indoors under lights, or if you purchase transplants from a nursery greenhouse, you will need to adapt your seedlings before transplanting them into the garden. This adjustment process is called “Hardening Off.”
Hardening off is the process of adapting plants to the outside, so they can get used to sunlight, wind, rain, cool nights, and less frequent watering and fertilizing. The hardening off period allows your seedling to transition from the comfortable growing conditions under lights or in a warm greenhouse to the normal conditions they will experience in the garden.
I like to allow at least a week to harden off seedlings before transplanting to the garden. Depending on the weather, sometimes two weeks are necessary. Be patient and you will be rewarded with healthy and strong plants.
Why Should You Harden Off Seedlings?
Sunlight is stronger than grow lights and can burn foliage if the seedlings are placed in the direct sun. Light breezes can sap your plants’ moisture and cause weak stems to break. Cooler nighttime temperatures may stunt the plant’s growth or even kill a seedling that is not used to it. Gradual exposure to the outside elements allows the plants to toughen up and become accustomed to being outside.
Steps to Harden Off Your Transplants:
1. Begin Hardening Off Your Plants in a Sheltered Location: About a week or two before your transplant date, place your plants outdoors in a protected spot for a few hours on the first day. I like to situate my seedlings on a patio table under an umbrella to shade them from the sun and shelter from rain. The table is located in an area that is also protected from harsh wind. Allow your plants to remain outside for a few hours, then bring your plants back inside.
Keep an eye on the weather during the hardening off period. Temperatures can drop to unseasonable levels quickly, and high winds can destroy tender foliage and knock over seedling trays. Watch the weather for early-season frost or unsettled conditions and bring transplants indoors until the weather returns to normal.
2. Increase Outdoor Exposure a Little Each Day: Increase the amount of time that the seedlings spend outside gradually to allow the plants to adjust slowly. Continue to harden off seedlings by moving the plants outside while temperatures are warm and then back inside at night when the temperature is cool. I usually add a couple of hours each day as long as the weather cooperates. Alter the shade or move the seedlings to a location that receives morning or evening sun, so they are exposed to a little more sun each day. Allow the seedlings to experience gentle breezes. Even filtered sunlight and light breezes can deplete your plants’ moisture, so check on them frequently and give them enough water, so they do not wilt.
3. Leave Seedlings Outside Overnight: Eventually, allow your plants to stay in full sun and outside as long as night temperatures do not drop below freezing. If it is going to get below freezing move the plants indoors. Resume the hardening off process once temperatures return to normal conditions.
Cool season crops such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, lettuce, onions, parsley, peas, spinach, Swiss chard, and other hardy greens can tolerate low nighttime temperatures of around 45°F once they have had time to adjust. Light frost won’t harm these seedlings after these are hardened off.
Warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons, cucumbers, and some herbs prefer warm nights, at least 60°F. They can’t stand below-freezing temperatures, even after the seedlings are hardened off. So continue to bring indoors if nights remain cool.
Transplanting Hardened Off Seedlings to the Garden
After your seedlings are hardened off, they are ready to be transplanted into their permanent location in the garden.
Prepare your garden bed ahead of time. If the weather has been dry, water the bed thoroughly the day before you plant.
Choose a cloudy day with no wind and transplant in the late afternoon or evening to give your plants time to adjust without the additional challenge of the sun.
Water the seedlings well after planting.
Hardening off is an important step to reduce stress on your plants. If you harden off seedlings properly, they’ll be strong and able to withstand full sun, light breezes, spring rains, and fluctuating temperatures. Once transplanted to the garden, the plant’s energy will be focused on establishing roots and growing rather than surviving.
You May Also Like:
- 10 Steps to Starting Seedlings Indoors
- How to Build a Grow Light Shelf
- Using Soil Blocks to Grow Seedlings
- Planning Your Vegetable Garden: Mapping the Garden Beds