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Seedlings grown indoors need a little bit of TLC before they are ready to be transplanted to their new garden home.  If you take a seedling from under a grow light and plant it in your garden, you may be very disappointed at the result. 

From this too-quick transition, your seedling faces three dangers: getting sunburned, getting too cold, or being squashed by wind and rain.

seedlings planted snow outside

Remember, your grow room was likely heated or kept warm by grow lights, and your seedlings got used to that nice cushy environment.  You need to “harden off” those little guys so they are prepared for the real world, just like a kid being sent to live independently.

Note: the best time to transplant most seedlings to your garden is when any danger of frost has passed and nights stay above 50 degrees (there are some exceptions for hardier plants, but usually anything earlier is better planted by seed).

Cucumber Seedlings going strong

Tips to Prepare Your Seedlings for Transplanting

Set up a Fan in your Grow Room 

Long before transplanting time, your seedlings can grow stronger and more stable if you give them a bit of “artificial wind” to grow up against.  Set a rotating fan in your growing room to gently sway your little plants.  In reaction, they will focus on growing a strong, stable stem that will be more ready for their next life phase.

This is like having your children do chores, learn to balance a checkbook, or cook their dinner while they are young.  They are still under your roof and protection, but you give them some strength they will need later in life.

Read more about planting and caring for seedlings in our series on starting seeds indoors.

seedlings in a three season porch with window open
A three-season porch is a great spot for seedlings to “transition” before being moved outside.

Move Seedlings to a “Transition Place”

About three weeks before planting time, consider moving your plants to a spot closer to nature, such as a sun porch. It should get a good amount of sunlight, but maybe not all day. The plants should also be able to adapt to some wind and slightly colder temperatures. 

If you don’t have a sun porch, consider moving the plants outside to a spot with indirect sunlight during the day.

You can move them indoors at night if it is still getting cold. A deck, driveway, or patio could work. Remember to water your plants well and pay close attention to the weather—don’t mistakenly leave them all outside for a frosty overnight!

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An outside space that gets partial sunlight is another transition option;
but don’t leave them out overnight if it’s going to be colder than 50 degrees.

This is kind of like sending a kid to college.  They are “on their own” but not 100% unsupervised or unguided.  They can spread their wings (or vines) and start to enjoy the freedom but someone is still there to make sure they don’t freeze.

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Move seedlings to a protected spot in the garden. 

About a week before planting time, start giving your seedlings the experience of being in the garden.  Place them in one of your garden beds or rows, but don’t move them out of their pots yet. 

This will help them get used to the weather conditions and sunlight that your garden has to offer before the shock of losing their cozy little potted home. 

how to start a vegetable garden e-book link

To be really careful, consider covering the seedlings with a row cover for the first few days and giving them just a few hours of direct sunlight a day. Here is a great how-to for building a raised bed with a row cover! Gradually take away this “crutch” as the week goes on.  By the time you’re ready to plant, your plants will feel like they are at home.

I like to think of this as the plant’s internship or apprenticeship.  They are learning how to survive for themselves and what is expected of them when they enter the real world.  It’s a practice run.

Time to Transplant!

The big day has come; it’s time for your plants to graduate and enter the real world independently!  As you get ready to transplant, ensure you have your supplies ready. 

You’ll need compost and water at minimum. Some plants will greatly benefit from fertilizer too.  Coming soon – all the directions to give your plants their best chance to thrive when transplanted!

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Carrie Williams Howe is an educational leader by day and an aspiring homesteader by night and weekend. She lives on a small homestead in Vermont with her husband, two children, and a rambunctious border collie. She blogs about her family's homestead life at The Happy Hive.

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