Monday, May 11, 2009

The Babies Are Moving Out

It’s time to move the babies outdoors. It’s kind of like sending the preschooler off to kindergarten. You can no longer control their surroundings and protect them from the elements. You have to hope you’ve done a good job raising strong healthy seedlings and then pray for good weather. There are a few things you can do to make the transition easier.

I firmly believe in “hardening off” my baby plants. This means moving them outdoors in a gradual way to get them used to the wind, temperature, and the strong sun which is so different from the fluorescent lights they have been raised under. Even store bought seedlings can use a little hardening off. If I had a sunny window I would start by letting them spend some time there. Alas, the only really sunny window is in my six year old’s room and that might not be the safest of surroundings. So I move them outside in to the shade on my porch on a warm day for an afternoon. From there I increase their time outside and their exposure to real sunlight a little each day. Eventually graduating them to sitting in their bin together over the very spot I plan to plant them. If the temperature threatens to dip low, I bring them in for the night. This takes about a week.

At this point I watch the weather. The last frost is supposed to be somewhere around tax day (April 15) for us, but we always seem to still get a few frosts after that down in the hollow where we live. I shoot for Mother’s Day for tomatoes and peppers and other warm weather plants. I want to be certain the temperature won’t go below 45 at night. I’ve got too much invested in my tomatoes (all 24 of them) to risk a cold night ruining my hard work. Ideal conditions would be daytime temps around 70 and not too sunny with some light rain. But life is not ideal now is it?

Planting seedlings is careful work. Water your seedlings thoroughly so that when you lift them out of their pots they soil will stick to the roots and not crumple away. Lay out where you are planning on putting them and prepare clear markers so that other folks who traverse your garden won’t trample on them. Like so many other things that look great at home, once you get them out of their element they seem incredibly small and fragile. Surround them with a string fence or deliberately mark them with large stakes.

Dig the hole larger than the seedling pot and be sure the soil you are planting in to is moist. If it isn’t, water the hole before planting the seedling. If you have compost to add, work the compost in to the hole also.

Getting the seedling out of its pot and in to the soil seems simple, but that isn’t always the case. If you use plastic containers (like the used yogurt cups I use), it is helpful to tap the bottom to loosen the plant. I actually invert the plant (holding my hand over the top so the plant won’t fall out) and tap it really hard. If there are roots growing out of the bottom of the cup I tear them off. Then I carefully shake the entire plant out for the container and set the plant in the hole, firming soil around it and up its neck. I bury it deeper in the ground than it was in the pot, especially with tomato plants.

Many of the books I’ve consulted have said to lift the plant out by the leaves, but that has never worked for me. Inevitably I end up lifting off the leaves without the plant. So gently shaking the plant out of the pot works is my method. And if that doesn’t work, I run my finger around the edge of the pot and scoop the plant out that way. If you have used the “plantable” peat pots, you are supposed to be able to plant the seedling pot and all. The one year I tried that it didn’t work for me. The plants were root bound and didn’t do well. At the end of the summer when we turned over the dirt, the peat pots were still completely intact. So if you use them, be sure to tear off the bottom and maybe tear the the sides back a bit too before you plant them. Lovely idea though, those peat pots.

My favorite plant store (Landreth Seeds) is having their annual sale this weekend. I will get up early to be one of their first customers on Saturday. As much as I enjoy saving lots of money raising my own seedlings, it’s still at thrill to buy a few “foreigners” to plant. This week I’m also going to harvest some of my “volunteer” lettuce that grew from the lettuce I planted last year and let go to seed. That’s the beauty of heirloom seeds, you get lots of volunteers. I’ll let you know how that works out. I’ve never thought of lettuce as a perennial, but this year it is for us. Gardening is such an adventure. You learn something new all the time.

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