In the beginning of our vegetable garden series, Martha showed you how to get a jump start on the growing season by starting seeds indoors. To ensure a successful yield, these tender seedlings need to gradually acclimate to the outdoor conditions; this process is called hardening-off.
The hardening-off of seedlings should be done one to two weeks prior to planting them in the ground. You can place them outside in a shaded, protected spot on warm days and bring them in at night. Each day, increase the amount of sunlight your seedling receives and reduce the frequency of watering to slow plant growth, but do not allow them to wilt.
Another way to harden-off involves using a cold frame. Cold frames create a perfect environment for hardening-off because the soil inside them absorbs the sun's heat during the day and releases it at night.
Raised beds provide a means of successful gardening in areas that don't drain well or have healthy soil. On the show, Martha used a raised bed made of wood that was about 3 feet wide by 7 feet long and 8 inches deep, filled with a nice fertile mix of soil and compost, perfect for transplanting seedlings into. Make sure your plants are watered before transplanting, and handle them carefully to avoid disturbing the roots or bruising the stems. First, dig a hole large enough to hold the roots of the plants. Place plants in hole, and press soil firmly around the roots. Then, water around the base of each plant.
Hotkaps are heavy wax-paper domes that provide diffused lighting around each plant and can be used to give transplants a little extra protection from unexpected frost or other harsh conditions. As the plants grow, the hotkap can be slit at the top to allow for growth while still protecting the base of the plant. When it is no longer needed, it can be torn into pieces and dropped into your compost.
Hotkaps are very simple to use: Simply place the dome over the plant, and cover edges with dirt to hold in place. Then, cut slits on top. You can also use hotkaps after you have sown your seeds directly into the ground, as the hotkaps help germinate them faster. Don't forget to add compost or an organic fertilizer to your newly planted seedlings.
For more information about hotcaps, visit hotkaps.com. For more helpful gardening information, check out our vegetable garden center. Plus, show off your prized vegetables and vegetable gardens by entering a photo in our vegetable garden contest.