Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hardening Off is Hard to Do

Let’s start with a moment of silence for my lost lettuce.

And a short prayer for my departed poppies.

Now a “so long” to my cilantro.

Apologies to any sensitive readers who weren't expecting this post to start with hard-core plant horror. What in the name of all that is green and good happened, you ask?

It’s a sad, sad story to tell. So sad, in fact, that it’s taken me a few days to muster up the mood to tell it.

Turns out, the journey of a house-germinated seed to the promised land of garden soil is even more treacherous than I believed. The perils are positively Odyssian, I’ve discovered, and believe me, I’d already built up a healthy respect for the process.

So where did things go so wrong this time around?

Our story begins about a week or so ago (give or take a week to account for the blogging time warp). I decided the time had come to transition some seedlings outside to the garden. Not all of them, mind you.  No, sir. Most of the seeds I’ve germinated are warm weather plants. They won’t be scheduled to make the their Big Trip To The Great Outdoors until around May 15-- after the last killing frost. But my lettuce, my poppies, and my cilantro, well, as I understand it, these plants can tolerate some cold, even a light freeze.

So I began the process of hardening off. For those readers who aren’t up on their high falutin' gardening lingo, “hardening off” is the plant equivalent of kicking the kids out of the house when they're 18-- but only to the apartment down the street where you pay the rent. See, life inside a home is pretty cush for a seedling: no wind, no cold nights, consistent light. So to prepare your starts for harsh realities of the Real Garden, you train them up.  The process involves taking them out to an outdoor but sheltered location for a few hours a day, and gradually increasing their exposure over a few days. The process actually thickens up or “hardens” the cuticle on the leaves so they don’t lose so much moisture.

In the past, I’d simply set my seedlings out in a partly-shady location on the patio. But this year, to continue my high-tech theme, I purchased the Posh Plant Palace…

… otherwise known as the $25 grocery-store greenhouse. Not too shabby, huh? Those are bricks in the bottom to keep it from blowing away.

My husband, who assembled this lovely green getaway, claims it is absolutely a piece of garbage. I admit,  when I move it from place to place, I have to carry it very carefully to keep it from disassembling in my hands-- but once in place, it is a winner. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.

First I set it up close to the house where it was mostly shaded, then moved it to the sunny position you see here.  Here’s a close up of my seedlings perched on the top shelf inside. My lovely lettuce is on the right. The poppies are on the left. The cilantro is hidden behind the poppies toward the back.

Aren’t they positively radiating plant promise? Don’t they exude utter confidence in the skills of the gardener who germinated them? 

They were doing fantastic. They’d made it through three days of steadily increasing exposure, and then a pivotal event occurred. My husband and I decided to have a getaway of our own. One of the marriage-boosting, overnight variety where the kids get dropped off at his sister’s.

It was in this state of heady anticipation that I made the following decision: the seedlings were ready for their first sleepover in the Palace.

What sort of irresponsible, devil-may-care Mommy am I? Well, it may seem rash and premature now, in hindsight. But at the time, like most doomed decisions, it seemed to have a lot in its favor. Like the fact that I was already three days into the hardening off process, and if I kept them inside while we were gone, I would have had to start all over again when we got back. Clearly, a little patience would have gone a long, long way, but if my past posts haven’t convinced you that patience isn’t one of my virtues, then this story should clear that right up.

Just to be precise, I don’t think it was cold that did my plants in.  Nope. The forecast predicted a comfortable 48 degrees the night I left them out. Their itty bitty peat pellet homes just dried out. All the way out. When I removed them from their Palace the afternoon after our getaway, each had about the same heft as a ping pong ball. Next time, I’ll make sure they’ve had a good drink the evening before their first night camping out. Or I’ll move them into bigger pots first.

So that’s the story. Which may leave you wondering: is hardening off really that hard to do? Well, probably not. I imagine a Master Gardener would no sooner write a post about hardening off than they would about tying their shoes. That’s why I call myself a Gardening Enthusiast rather than a Gardening Expert. Now, if only enthusiasm could bring back my lettuce…..

Anyone else have any hardening off horror stories? Or never-fail tips? Do share.

 P.S. My husband has accurately pointed out that while my blog is called green out every window, I’ve spent most of my posts sharing indoor photos of my seeds germinating and growing. This observation is entirely accurate, and tied to one fact: in Northern Nevada, no gardener, expert or otherwise, makes serious attempts to green up anything outside until after May 15. If readers can just bear with me, there will be actual outdoor gardening posts to come. Thanks for reading!


  1. So sorry to hear about this! I have a similar problem in that after a month of taking care of little seedlings I start to slack off and forget about them. Which leads to things like forgetting to water them, forgetting them outside overnight, etc. Inevitably there are casualties. Thus far one tomato and one basil have keeled over but I haven't even begun hardening off yet so no doubt more will perish in the coming weeks.

  2. Marguerite,

    I am so with you on the slacking off. After the initial euphoria of starting the seeds wears off, I get negligent big time. I am vowing, next year, to start seeds mid April instead of mid March. That way, when I start to get tired after a month, it will already be time to move them outside. Instead, I'm having to transplant most of them into 4 inch pots because they're getting big-- more hassle! And still a month to go in the house! Thanks for reading!

  3. So you killed your plants because of a weekend of human happiness? I'd say that's a pretty fair trade!

  4. So sorry to hear about the indoor winter lettuce was almost lost to neglect...I grow most seeds outside especially the cooler weather ones and I grow them under a protective row cover to give them a chance...I do not have time to put the seedlings outside a little at a time and harden them off so the warmer weather seedlings go out all at once when the weather warms..I think I need to start a bit later too since my peppers are getting big and may need to go in different pots soon under the one grow light...I need another grow light for sure...

  5. So sad! I've had seedlings keel over due to too little water, AND too much water. I've also got Space Issues - and can't shift lots of the seedlings out to less sheltered positions until mid May because of the danger of frosts. Hope you don't suffer any more losses.

  6. I have done that...thinking they were strong enough to handle it, and they didn't. It is almost like losing something you love. You give it so much care and attention, and then you come out to that...ugh!

  7. Poor seedlings! They are so fragile at that stage! Makes you wonder how weeds and trees make it on their own without human intervention! I always say if you treat your seedlings like a newborn, you cant go wrong! Don't put them in the sunshine the first few days, be sure give a bottle (water) every few hours, and dont leave outside alone on cold nights!

  8. Jim: Ah, the voice of reason. Wish that was one of the many voices in my head!

    Donna: Just ordered another grow light for my seedlings. I never considered how much space they would occupy once they had to be transplanted to 4 inch pots! Seedlings are a good bit of work in the end.

    Janet: I'm having space issues as well. Thanks for the encouragment.

    Kris: Thanks :(

    Sage Butterfly: In the moment it was quite devastating. Luckily, it was only about 1/4 of my seedlings that got wiped.

    Jayne: Thanks for those rules! I guess I'm making all the typical mistakes of a new mother!

  9. Bel, I'm soooo sorry to hear about your loss, but I guess, as long as you learned something from the experience then it wasn't a total loss, right? Sometimes we only know what to do by knowing what NOT to do. I'm sure the rest of your plants will turn out great.

    I have made tons of mistakes when it comes to gardening/planting. That's why I won't plant seeds anymore. Too many unhappy memories. As you know, I live in California, which is very forgiving with it's weather in the Springtime, but I'm still not good at planting anything in seed form.

    Hang in there, Bel. Just keep thinking of all those tasty, fresh vegetables come this Summer. Yummmmmmm...

  10. A very amusing post. It's better to laugh than cry at our gardening failures, right? I gave up on starting seeds indoors after one disastrous year. I decided it's too much work and why not wait until Mama Nature is ready for summer seeds.

  11. Thanks for all the sympathy, guys! The good news is I have managed to revive some of my poppies with lots of love, and trimming of dead leaves, and more love. I'll post an update of them when they're ready to go outside.


Thanks for reading!