Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Hardening Off

The last of my plants have arrived. For the second year in a row, I've ordered several pepper, tomato and herb plants from Lazy Ox Farm, a farm out in Missouri. Now, why would I order plants all the way from MO when I can just pop over to a local farm or the Lowes? It's about 50 percent impatience and 50 percent selection. I like to plan out my garden in February or March, well before it's time to put out tomato or pepper plants. Since I don't have the wherewithal to grow those plants from seed, my best option is to order them online. This year, I ordered in March and waited until May for the plants to ship and arrive. Yes, I could have waited until May to go to the local farm and get some plants, but there is no guarantee the local farm will have the varieties I want to grow.

So how does mail order for plants work? Surprising well. The folks at Lazy Ox package the plants well, so the dirt doesn't spill out. The leaves, stems and roots don't suffer much or any damage. The plants only spend about a day in the box, between leaving the farm and getting to my doorstep. It's all pretty impressive. In all, the plants from the farm are miles and away healthier than the plants you see at the hardware store.

This all brings us to hardening off. It sounds violent and scary, but it's very necessary for the plant's survival. And it's not violent at all. The plants have been in a box for a few days. If I were to plant them in their soil and leave them outdoors 24 hours a day, they would suffer a pretty great shock. The shock would stunt their growth and make them pretty unhappy. Plus, some plants, such as basil and peppers only like warm weather. At this point in time, there is still a slight risk for nighttime temperatures dipping into the 50-55 degree range.

So instead, they are hardened off. That means they get gradually exposed to the world outside and all that means - sunlight, wind, changes in temperatures, etc. You could get all scientific about it if you wanted, for example, bring them out in a shady area for an hour one day, then in a more sunny area for a few hours the next, and so on. But I'm not. I just extend the time they spend outdoors until I think it's time to plant. At this point, I feel they have a few more days to go before they are ready to move outside for good.

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