We previously discussed how to start your seeds indoors so that you would have big, strong plants to grow well in your garden when the weather is right. Before your plants can go into the garden, there are a few things you need to do to prepare them for success.
Once your seedlings have 2 sets of true leaves, it is an excellent time to transplant them into their own container. This will give the seedlings space to grow and further develop their root systems. At this point, you can use a good quality sterile multi-purpose potting mix. You’ll want to fertilize them weekly with half-strength organic fertilizer. It’s important to provide 14-16 hours of light and maintain a good moisture level.
When to Move Plants to the Garden
The time to move your plants to the garden depends on your last frost date and the type of plant. Some plants, like spinach and kale, are cool-weather plants that should be in the garden before the weather gets too warm. Heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers should wait until it is safely past your region’s last frost date and nighttime temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Prepare the Garden
Before transplanting your seedlings, you’ll want to make sure your garden beds are ready for them. Rake and loosen the soil, removing any rocks or weeds. Mix in some good organic matter (like compost) to help the soil retain moisture. This will also make it easier for the seedlings’ roots to penetrate the soil.
Depending on your location, you may want to take the extra step of helping Mother Nature warm your soil by covering your garden beds with clear plastic or landscape fabric for a couple of weeks before planting. This will help lessen the shock for the seedlings when transplanted.
How to Harden Off Seedlings
Many seed packets will mention a period of “hardening off” for the seedlings. Hardening off is the process of getting the plants used to the outdoors before actually transplanting them into the garden. You need to toughen up your little seedlings before they are left to the wilds of the outdoors.
The main reason for this is that all plants have what is called a cuticle, a protective waxy coating on their leaves that repels water, retains moisture, and filters out harmful UV light. Plants started indoors have not fully developed this cuticle, so they need some extra time to build up this protective armor.
Most planting instructions call for 7 days of hardening off. An easy process, once outdoor daytime temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit is as follows:
Day 1 - Set your seedlings outside in the partial sun for 3 hours
Day 2 - Set your seedlings outside in partial to full sun for 3 hours
Day 3 - Set your seedlings outside in the full sun for 4 hours
Day 4 - Set your seedlings outside in the full sun for 5 to 6 hours
Day 5 - Set your seedlings outside in the full sun for the full day
Day 6 - Set your seedlings outside all day and overnight (as long as temperatures remain well above freezing)
Day 7 -Transplant your seedlings into their place in the garden
Keep an eye on the moisture levels of your seedlings while hardening off. When you are at the point of leaving them out for 4 hours or more, they may need some watering. Also, pay attention to the weather. Especially for the first couple of days, your seedlings will be vulnerable to breezes. When leaving plants out overnight, make sure to put them somewhere off the ground as rodents might find them a tasty midnight snack.
Getting Ready for Planting Day
When it is time to transplant your seedlings, make sure you’ve checked the weather report for the next week or so. You’ll want to avoid any extreme weather, like high winds, heavy rain, or frost that might make the transition hard for your seedlings. The day before you plan to plant, make sure to water your garden thoroughly so it is well-moistened. Double-check on planting day to make sure the soil is still good and moist. If not, water again before transplanting.
Consult your seed packets to determine how far apart to plant the seedlings so that they will have enough room to grow properly.
Some general rules for spacing:
- Space large bushy plants like tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage at least 18 to 24 inches apart
- Plant smaller plants like peppers, eggplants, beans, and lettuce about 12 to 18 inches apart
- Most root vegetables can be planted within a few inches of one another
- Large vining plants like zucchini and pumpkins should be 4 to 6 feet apart
The ideal weather for transplanting is an overcast warm day, so your seedlings won’t be immediately exposed to intense sunlight. Dig a planting hole that is just slightly larger than the root ball of your seedling and about as deep. Turn your seedling pot upside down with your hand supporting the plant. Be careful not to break or drop the plant. Tap the bottom of the pot to release the plant. Try not to pull the plant out as you will damage the roots.
Place the seedling in its hole and fill it with soil up to the base of the plant. If you have especially leggy seedlings, you can bury the plant slightly deeper to allow the soil to further support the stem, just don’t bury any leaves.
Pat down the soil around the plant, but do not compact it too firmly. Immediately water the seedling at the soil level. This will help settle the roots and reduce transplant shock.
After transplanting, keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Do not allow it to dry out. If you live in an area that is prone to dryness, you may want to add mulch around your plants to help retain moisture. Always water gently at the soil level. Until your plants are well established you will probably need to water once a day to keep the soil surface constantly moist.
A few days after planting is a good time to fertilize your seedlings with a starter fertilizer to make sure that they have plenty of phosphorus to encourage root development.
Once your plants have been transplanted into the garden, especially in the early Spring, be sure to protect them from frost. You can use hoop covers, cold frames, or even sheets to protect the plants overnight, being sure to remove any cover in the morning.
We find it helpful to keep notes of the whole growing process from year to year so that you can learn from mistakes and take advantage of things that worked well for you. We hope these tips will help you on your way to achieving success in your survival garden.