Susan Glaese shares her guide to planting seedlings in spring, including tips on planting temperature, water, transplanting, food, wind and light.
Hardening off seedlings is a gardener's way of doing the same thing for plants. You can't just take young sprouts that have grown vigorously in a warm indoor environment, plunk them outside into the cool spring ground, and expect them to thrive.
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When I moved from Florida — where gardens do best in January! — to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS EcoVillage in western North Carolina [EDITOR'S NOTE: Susan is our head gardener], the first cold snap found me with frozen laundry on my clothesline and in need of a strange (to me) tool I'd heard referred to as an "ice scraper." I began to wonder if I'd survive this experience called winter! But it didn't take me long to discover the secret of getting through the season: Avoid extremes. I noticed that people who kept their homes "August warm" would chill to the bone — and often take sick — when they had to go outside . . . but others, whose homes were considerably cooler, had no trouble adjusting to the outdoor air. I chose to mimic the latter and was soon hardening myself off to the cold.
Hardening off seedlings is a gardener's way of doing the same thing for plants. You can't just take young sprouts that have grown vigorously in a warm indoor environment, plunk them outside into the cool spring ground, and expect them to thrive. Instead, you must toughen them up for the transition by gradually adjusting their temperature, water, food, and exposure to wind and sunlight. In this way when planting seedlings out, you'll produce stocky, thick growth that's less vulnerable to cold, wind, and disease.
Begin this process one to two weeks before transplanting by setting your starts outdoors for a few hours in the afternoon. Choose a sunny location that's protected from strong winds. Cold frames are wonderful tools for this, but there are plenty of other suitable methods, such as placing the plants on a protected patio or by the sunny side of a building. After two or three days of this initiation, your plants will be ready to stay out from morning to late afternoon for the remainder of the week. Then, if the weather promises to be mild, let them "camp out" for a few nights in final preparation.
I like to further ease my seedlings' transition by surrounding them with cool temperatures right from the start. It may surprise you to know that, although most plants prefer a warm atmosphere for germination, their optimum growing temperatures are on the cool side (see the accompanying chart in the image gallery). For instance, while broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Swiss chard, collards, Chinese cabbage, kale, lettuce, and parsley prefer germination temperatures from the mid-70s to the 80s, they actually grow best between 60 degrees and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
To help a plant harden off, you should also restrict its water supply. So give your seedlings' soil a chance to dry out some during those transition days. You might even let leaves droop just a little before you water. (And try to water only on sunny days — doing so reduces overchilling.)
Alan Chadwick, founder of the biodynamic/French intensive method, used to speak of the "breakfast, lunch, and dinner" concept of nurturing young plants: Give them a good "breakfast" in their first seed tray, a nutritious "lunch" in their second flat, and when they're hungry and ready — a hearty "supper" in the fertile soil of their garden home. By the time you're ready to plant out, the breakfast and lunch you've provided for your plants indoors should be almost used up. Then the plants will respond all the more eagerly to the rich dinner you've prepared for them in the garden.
So far, to "hardy up" your plants, you've been decreasing warmth, water, and — in a way — food. But wind and light are two factors you'll want to increase when planting seedlings. Vegetables that get doses of mild wind make more xylem (tough) cells and shorter internodes (the stem distances between leaves). This means stockier, sturdier plants.
Although you need to increase your plants' exposure to sunlight, you don't want to over — do it: Moving plants directly from partial light into full sun can "burn" leaves. By gradually increasing light exposure during the hardening-off process, you'll allow the plant time to form carotenoids-pigments which act sort of like temporary sunglasses for the leaves until their chlorophyll levels have time to adjust.
The best time to plant out is late afternoon, early evening, or on a day that is decidedly overcast. (A light misting rain is an added bonus.) Water the flats or containers well a few hours before transplanting. This helps the coops slip free without tear — You'll need a tool for making holes in the ground, a damp cloth to wrap the roots in, a source of water, and a sense of not being pressed for time:
Ready? First, carefully get the seedlings out of their containers when planting seedlings into the ground. (Peat pots and the like can be planted directly in the soil.) If a plant has its own individual pot, you can tap the sides gently until the roots slide out easily. Loosen any tightly balled roots before you put the plant in the soil.
If you raised your starts in flats, use a hand garden fork to lift a small block of soil out (I call it "cutting the cake"). You don't want to let any roots dry out, so wrap that bunch in a moist cloth. Then gently separate and transplant one start at a time.
Never pick up a seedling by its stem. While it may look like a naturally tough "handle," the stem is truly a seedling's most vulnerable spot. A young plant can survive some root damage or even losing a leaf or two. (Indeed, some growers recommend deliberately pinching off a few lower leaves of lettuce, parsley, celery, and brassica transplants to reduce wilt and stimulate root growth.) But if you squeeze a stem too tightly, you'll injure the seedling's food and water transport system and make the plant more vulnerable to disease. The correct way to handle a transplant is to support its root ball in your palm while holding the tips of either cotyledon or true leaves between two fingers.
Once you've got a seedling ready, open a small pocket in the earth with a trowel, dibble, or large spoon . . . and put the plant in. (Actually, if the soil is light enough, I prefer to dig down with my fingers. Doing so allows me to feel a more direct bond between the darkness of past lives and the coming of new ones.) Don't dig too large a hole, or an air space that could harm the roots may form when you're filling in around the plant.
Bury most stems up to their first set of true leaves to provide a firm anchor for the surge of new growth to come. This is especially important for top-heavy crops like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. With tomatoes, you can produce a long, lush root system by pinching off all but the top set of leaves and burying the bare stem.
The most critical factor in successful transplanting is creating a cohesive bond between the root ball and the surrounding soil so there'll be an uninterrupted uptake of nutrients and water. To ensure this, lightly press the soil around the stem with your hands. This firm footing is particularly important for brassicas.
Some gardening authorities recommend watering the transplants after each bed or row is complete, and others swear that you should do it plant by plant. If the soil is moist and the humidity high, I'd go with the first method. If opposite conditions prevail, I'd say water as you go. Be sure to do one or the other: Watering in helps establish good root contact and provides the medium for nutrient uptake.
Try hard not to wet your transplants' leaves as you water the soil. The cold could shock the plant. What's more, the moisture could make the leaves "think" it's raining, open their stomata, and "perspire" to balance the perceived moisture. The end effect? The plant could actually lose water.
You may also want to give your new transplants a dose of fertilizing tea-manure, comfrey, or stinging nettle — to help ease their transition and boost their strength. (Add a little "dessert" to their Chadwickian dinner!)
A lot of people have helped plant out spring seedlings here at the Eco-Village. Most all of them agree that there's something enchanting about this ancient, early-evening ritual. It's a special time of day and year, when skin seems to glow a deeper color, bees slow down and return to the hive, newly green surroundings take on a richer intensity . . . and gardeners renew their promise of stewardship of the earth.