At long last, the time has come to begin moving your tomato and pepper seedlings outside. You have spent weeks nurturing your seedlings, watching tiny seeds sprout and grow into strong and healthy transplants. You don’t want to ruin all of your weeks of watering, fertilizing and caring for your little plants by moving them directly to the garden without preparing them properly. These little plants have never been exposed to direct sun or wind, and the natural environment of your garden can damage your transplants if you don’t prepare them for what’s to come.
By now your transplants should be about six inches tall and have several leaves. They should have strong stems and healthy root systems. They are ready for the real world, but should be eased into it. Transplants should go through a “hardening off” period in which you allow them small amounts of sunshine and wind. This eases the transition from a protected and controlled indoor environment into the sunny and windy (and sometimes cold) Iowa garden.
Begin about a week before you plan to transplant your seedlings (that’s about now in Des Moines). On the first day, set your tomato and pepper plants outdoors in a shady location, preferably one that enjoys a little breeze. Leave them out for a couple of hours and then bring them back indoors. Do this each day for about a week, increasing the amount of sun and wind the plants are exposed to. Also, increase the amount of time the plants spend outdoors by a couple of hours each day. Continue watering as normal. Even better, put them out in the rain if possible.
By the end of a one week period your plants should be hardened off, and prepared for garden life. They will still need wind protection in the garden at first, but you have given them the head start that will make a difference in the weeks to come.