Sounds risqué, right? Well, sorry to disappoint but the process of ‘hardening off’ is merely preparing your tender plant seedlings for life out of doors.
Many people forget this step when planting their garden, whether in the ground or in containers. And, if you skip this step, you may actually be setting your plants back several days or even weeks, depending upon the severity of the shock. Because that is what hardening off prevents: shock.
There are lots of things to keep in mind when beginning the process of hardening off. The first has mostly to do with getting your plants used to sunlight. Whether you have germinated your own seeds or bought them from a grower, if they were not grown in a greenhouse with full exposure to sunlight, they must go through the process. By comparison, putting your plants out without preparation can be likened to you spending the entire day out in the hot, bright sunlight, without sunscreen, after being inside all winter. Sunburn is going to happen.
Keep in mind that morning sun is better and less harsh than noon or afternoon sunlight. So plan on moving your plants out in the morning, then take them back inside as the sunlight gets more intense. Begin with perhaps 30 minutes or an hour then increase incrementally each day for about a week, until they are out all day.
Secondly is acclimating your tender plants to temperature changes. It is important to know when the approximate time of the last frost is in your area. For me, it is April 15. That, by no means, is a date set in stone. This is when watching the weather every day is important. Because each year seems to be different.
And thirdly, is protection from the wind. Even a gentle breeze can do damage and dry out delicate little babies.
Gardening is very much a science. There are rules to follow if success is to be achieved. However, within those rules lies a great amount of skill that can only be put down as art and can only be gained through experience. After once going through the process of hardening off your plants, you will have gained a knowledge that will serve you through the successive growing seasons.
For instance, if you have a lot of seedlings, it may be unrealistic to carry trays and trays of tender little babies in and out for a week until they are acclimated. One option is to use shade clothes to give them protection, offering them a little more sunlight each day. Or put them out under dappled shade. And, of course, don’t leave them out if the weather is turning too chilly.
If you are lucky enough to have a well-protected space under a nice dappled shade where the wind does not reach, you may have hit the jackpot!
Once you know the basic rules, learning how to harden off seedlings actually requires quite a lot of experimentation. But when you get the hang of it, the payoff will be healthier plants that produce more blossoms or more fruits or vegetables. I say, it is a lesson well worth taking the time to learn.