Friday, May 27, 2011

Hardening Off Seedlings to Avoid the Dangers of Late Spring

So, now that we are safely in June, I can confidently say that I believe that we are well beyond days with highs in the 50s.  And, I can only pray we've seen the last of lows in the 30s for a few months.

"Before": The peppers looked SO good planted on 5/17
I felt pretty good the last week of March, with several weeks of warm temperatures, it seemed that April and May would make it feel like an extended spring.  Instead, it was one of the coldest and rainiest Springs we have had in Northern Colorado since we moved here in 2000.  And, it took it's tole on our early garden.

This was the first year in in 11 years we had successfully grown plants from seed indoors, and had them reach a size that was able to be transplanted outdoors.  Usually, we blow it from sprouting to the first transplant, letting the plant get too stringy to survive.  But this time, we had a nice tray of about 24 peppers that got planted in mid-May that just didn't have the strength to survive.

This didn't need to happen.

Deb kept harping on me to "harden off" the plants, but I insisted.  My motivations were good.  I wanted to make sure that we got the plants in the ground early enough to mature before it was late September.  This is a problem we have had in the past.

But, here is the flaw in my logic - their time to maturity is kind of programmed in.  Whether they are still getting light indoors, in a greenhouse, or whether they are planted in their permanent spot outdoors, they are still on the same schedule.  Rushing them into the ground, no matter how strong they looked, was a big mistake.  When we buy at the farmer's market, or from our local organic grower, they've done this work for us.
Pepperocini was our pride variety this year.

I kept watching the 10-day forecast from May 1 on forward, and it was perpetually 5 days until the good weather arrived.  After two or three of these storms just followed on each other's heels, it was kind of like playing black or red in roulette - if you see a streak, sooner or later you get confidence that the next one HAS to break the pattern.  And, like roulette, you can bet and lose the greenhouse with this logic.

It was the 17th of May, and while the first half of May had been quite chilly, with most days struggling to get above 60 degrees, the 10-day forecast showed that by Friday the 20th, it was going to be in the 70s and 80s for the rest of the forecast.  The Wednesday and Thursday were going to be rainy, and probably more of the same temperatures.

In reality, it rained about 5 inches in 2 days, and the temperatures were mostly in the 40s - just barely peeking into the low 50s for a couple hours each day.

The poor peppers were being drowned and over-chilled.  As a result, they whithered up the first sunny day, and it was over without a chance.  These kinds of moments are gardening's punch in the gut.  The time and energy, not to mention the emotions you put into caring for these plants since they sprouted, all feels like a personal loss.  And, it's one of the reasons some choose to give up, and not garden again.

The Killing Field of Pepper Sadness
This is why you have to grow in larger numbers, and hope that your best season results in you giving away your extras, and not having to use them.  When you multiply seeds in your original sowing, you are rarely even adding a penny per seed.  So, the cost is nil.  And, when tending to them, assuming space is not at a premium, it takes about the same amount of time to water them.  The first transplant into a 2x2 container takes some time, but that's about the only additional time.

In our case, I have a second batch of peppers that are in their tray, and since they are the last of this year's crop, I am taking the advice to harden them off for a week or more before putting them in the ground.  But, because I didn't grow quite enough, we may have to get some peppers from the store.
Hardening Off Veggies the right way
The good news is that in Tomato Land, we have had 100% success with our seedlings, and we are going to be giving a few away.  We are going to try a Flambeau Gardens upside down patio planter with 4 plants - on the front porch!
Flambeau Gardens
 Upside Down Patio Planter

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