February 15 is the official “start date” for the cool weather planting season in our zone, a season that lasts until about March 10 give or take a few.
Since such vegetables as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower don’t like to be sown directly, we start our transplants indoors right around the first of the year and try to have them ready to set out some time around Valentine’s Day.
We have several irons in the fire at the moment, so we’re running a teeny bit behind, but this past week we began hardening off “the ladies” as husbie refers to them, to get them acclimated to growing conditions outside.
Here are a few things that have worked for us, and a few things we have learned the hard way:
1. Begin the process inside with a gentle fan.
This doesn’t need to be an elaborate set up. If you have a small desk fan or one of those tiny clip on models ~ great! We don’t at the moment so we went with what we do have: an overhead ceiling fan in the office. The fan creates a very gentle movement, simulating an outdoor breeze that will help the seedlings develop strong stems. We started doing this for a short amount of time each day or every other day once they got to be about 2″ tall.
2. Choose a day that is overcast with little wind.
Baptism by fire isn’t necessary and shock will only weaken the plants making them susceptible to pests and disease. Introduce them to the elements gently. Choose a cloudy day, or set them out in a shaded area. Make sure there is only a little, if any wind.
3. Bring inside when they begin to show signs of stress.
That first day we set them out on a back porch and checked on them periodically. As soon as they began to wilt a little, we brought them inside. They lasted about 20 minutes, so we made a mental note to leave them out the following day for about 25-30, which brings me to my next point:
4. Leave out for a bit longer each day, gradually increasing exposure to the elements and sunlight.
The key word here is gradually. Setting them out in direct sun for hours on end and expecting them to thrive, is a bit like teaching a small child to swim by simply tossing them in the deep end.
There are different ways you can accomplish this. I once saw a nursery cover their plants with shade cloth, uncovering the plants for a certain amount of time each day. We prefer again, to just go with what we have by setting the plants in dappled or full shade, and expose them to direct sunlight in growing increments of time. When the plants can be left in full sun (or whatever exposure is required for them) for the full day, we go ahead and set out in the garden.
A few things to keep in mind:
*Morning sun is much more gentle than afternoon. When the plants are young, and we’re just beginning the hardening off process, I avoid afternoon sun.
*Make sure they have adequate moisture before spending time outside.
*If you do inadvertently forget them, popping out to the back porch to unexpectedly discover a tray of wilted plants, they will most likely recover. I have forgotten lettuce seedlings more times than I care to admit.
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