Hardening off your starts – #GrowWithFFC

Pictured above: #GrowWithFFC Starts, Day one of hardening off.

Oh my gosh! I hope that each of you have been able to get outside bit and enjoy some of this beautiful weather that we’ve been having these last several days – especially after such a cold an rainy weekend.

We’ve almost reached the most celebrated day of the gardener’s year – the last frost date. Planting season is nearly upon us, which means that it’s time to harden off warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers, summer squashes, and the like.

In our house we have entered what our family calls ‘Shuffle Season’. This is when the daily temperatures are high enough that plants that overwintered inside are relocated outdoors for the day but overnight temperatures are low enough that frost injury is likely or the plants won’t survive.

FFC Harden 16-0502 04

Day 3 of #GrowWithFFC hardening –  looking a little rough, but weren’t all of our teen years?

Shuffle season lasts until the overnight temperatures are high enough that frost isn’t a concern and most every plant will be put into their usual summer residence. Until then, before we close up for the night, any plants that are not hardy enough to survive the overnight temperatures are brought back inside. This includes any of the starts that will be planted in the garden in the next couple of weeks.

The first time I heard the words ‘hardening off’ I was mystified as to what that meant, but after my Grandma explained it to me it made sense. You are exposing the plants to longer and longer periods of time outdoors so that they are able to adapt and survive the outdoor environment.

The process usually takes about two weeks, and starts with a few hours outside in a partially sunny location that is protected from wind – though a gentle breeze is very beneficial. Over the first couple of days, you’ll set them out for longer periods of time until they are spending the daylight and even evening hours outside.

While the seedlings were inside their every need was tended to: They were held at optimal temperatures, with just the right amount of water, lighting (even from a window), and food as it was needed.


Pictured: The cozy environment that was home for #GrowWithFFC Seedlings/Starts.

Now though, those plants have grown and while they are of an age and maturity that they need to be planted, they are not yet prepared. Their stems and leaves are soft and tender and they have few if any protections against our dry air. The plants that we’ve tended to for the last several weeks have a lot of work to do to reinforce their tissues and to adapt to our dry weather and harsh sun. This is what ‘hardening off’ is – the process of adapting to the outdoor environment – the dry air, wind, varying temperatures, and water stress.


FFC Harden 16-0502 05

#GrowWithFFC Day 5 of hardening off. They’ll look much better when they are in the garden.

Is hardening really necessary?

There have been years where weather didn’t cooperate and the plants had to adapt to the outdoors when they were planted – this though, is not ideal as not only does the green part of the plant have to adapts and goes thru a period of shock and adaptation, but the roots have to adjust to being in soil that is not temperature controlled, is heavier, and has bacteria and other creatures that the plant now needs to fend off or compete with.

Many times, the double shock of planting without hardening off is too stressful for the plants, and if they don’t die outrightly, they never seem to regain their vigor and instead spend the summer looking somewhat pitiful and not producing very much.

It’s nearly time to set (or plant) the garden. Generally a good rule of thumb is that you are safe to plant after Mother’s Day, which takes place this weekend – but it has been cold and wet enough that soil temperatures have not yet warmed up enough to be ideal for planting. I’m holding off for another week or two so that the risk of root rot or any of the bacterial infections like wilt or blight can be avoided.

Don’t be tricked by this beautiful weather that we’ve been having this week. Check the long term forecasts to make sure that if you plant this weekend, that you have materials that you can use to protect your investment. Too often I’ve run across plant stands that didn’t make it with late season frosts or even snow.

hardening off too soon

Pictured: Overnight temps were too low for these guys.


Before then, there are plenty of chores to be done, beds to be prepped, tools to be conditioned, and wildlife to duel.

Until next time, may your knees be green, and your spirit light.



One thought on “Hardening off your starts – #GrowWithFFC

  1. Thanks for the advice Amy. I’m a novice gardener, new to the area, and in need of more patience. Consequently, I’ve already killed a few plants this Spring. I happened to be lamenting my gardening issues to your husband (at work) and he pointed me to your blog. Nice article.


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