So a couple of months ago, when snow was swirling around outside and wicked winds were whipping through your garden, you got out your paper cups, or toilet rolls, or fancier cow pots and filled them with sterile seed starting medium and planted your choice heirloom tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds. You watched every day for emergence, keeping them moist but not too wet, warm on the top of the refrigerator or a heated seed starting mat. And celebrated when they finally poked their little green heads up. You added a grow light, lowered to a few inches above them, to keep them from getting straggly. Then followed weeks of growth as they developed their real leaves and then thicker stalks. You might have gently put a fan on them for a few minutes each day to strengthen them. And now, the weather is warming and your seedlings are ready, or almost ready, for the garden.
For any gardener who has ever experienced transplant shock and loss, you know how heartbreaking it is. This is the most critical time to ensure your future success — the “Hardening Off” period, when you ease your seedlings to readiness for the garden. Some gardeners like to rush the process, using devices to protect their seedlings from sudden temperature changes, or even snow. I prefer to let them gradually strengthen from short, daily exposures to sun and outside temps and hold the transplanting for when the weather and conditions are correct. I have found that rushing to the garden doesn’t produce fruit any faster. Tomatoes (and eggplants and peppers) come when the number of hours of daylight and temperatures are right for them, and not before. So why risk stressing those dear little things?
Emphasis is on gradual. Here in North Carolina, it is not unexpected that we go from quite chilly, windy days and close to freezing nights, to suddenly summer! Yesterday was such a day — in the 80’s after weeks of cold, inhospitable weather. Now, a warm day does not equate with warm soil. And a hot sunny day can literally fry your sweet little tomatoes, so caution! I like to take a tray of the largest seedlings out with me in the mid-morning, when the sun is still hospitable, and set it down with me while I weed or prepare soil. I set a timer, because it is so easy to lose track of time when gardening. First outings are strictly limited to 15 minutes, gradually increasing that time over a period of a week or two until they can stand quite well even in the middle of the day. This is when you are ready to transplant.
Now, there is still the possibility of shock and loss if the soil is too cold, or the sun too bold. Choose a day that’s cloudy but not threatening and do your transplanting in the morning or afternoon. You’ve already prepared the proper location and soil, with appropriate amendments so that the tilth and pH is right. Tomatoes can be planted quite deep (or laterally) up to their top leaves. They will develop roots all along the stem that is in the soil, adding strength and vitality to your plants. Water them in and keep an eye on them to be sure they are not stressed. And don’t forget to regularly side dress them with delicious organics. And dream of the beautiful fruits to come!