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Seed Starting VI: Pricking Out, Thinning and Hardening Off

As you will recall from our previous five thrilling episodes, your brand-new starts are up and eating. Be sure to turn off all bottom heat, but keep the little plants close to your LED or fluorescent lights. Depending on the size of your original 'cells' it will soon be pricking out time.

Yes, that's the actual horticultural term for moving starts into larger containers, which you should do at least once during their indoor time. When? I don't know; I just do it when I have the time and attention span; but let's say a month out, with at least two weeks afterwards for them to recover from your ham-handed molestations.

(Internet Note: If you're going to look up the term, type fast and get those last three letters in quick as a bunny.)

For starts like peppers, eggplant, flowers, etc. take your individual containers ('cells') and massage the sides gently until the plant and soil are easy to remove. Don't yank on the plants! If you have one of those multi-cell seed starters, you'll have to go a pricking. Take a thin knife and slide it down all four sides of the container in question and then use a spoon or something similar to lift it out.

No matter how you do this, you'll fill around half of your new container with fresh potting soil and plop (not an actual horticultural term) the baby plant on top (hopefully with lots of soil still attached to its roots). If the old and new soil lines eh...line up, you're good. If the old soil line is below the lip of the new container, lift it out and add soil to the bottom of the new container. If it's a little higher than before, that's fine.

Tomatoes: Unlike almost anything else in the garden, tomatoes grow auxiliary roots all along any part of the stem that's buried. And those roots grow fast; it's not unusual for you to see tomato roots trying to escape the bottom of their pots. So the rules are different for tamatas. Take your new, larger pot, plop the plant into the bottom and then fill in around the rest of the plant with fresh potting soil. (Pull off any lower leaves that would end up under the soil.) You will continue this process every time you move that tomato plant up, including at planting time. Tomatoes should ALWAYS be {quote} 'buried deep'. Everything else should always be at the same height in the original soil line.

"Thinning": If there was more than one plant in the container, it is best to snip out the weaker ones. That means the poorly colored and/or taller ones (tall is not good with starts; it means that they're not getting enough light). Use small scissors and cry later. If you are experienced, brave and perhaps foolhardy, yes, you can empty out the pot, untangle the roots and plant each one in its own pot.

Before you decide to do so: 1) If you're new to the game, use the scissors; you can progress to screwing up royally in future seasons. 2) Count your starts and then figure out how many plants your garden can realistically hold. If you're already WAY over, snip snip. If you could use a few more plants, then try untangling (also not a real horticultural term). If you're a newbie, ask an experienced gardener for help. Bonus: They'll also tell you all the other things you're doing wrong!

After potting up, place the new containers in the legendary 'one to two inches of water in a sink' and allow them to absorb water through their drainage holes. Try not to use city tap water; rainwater or purified water is best. Sniff the water; if you can smell chlorine, don't use it! And do NOT water them from overhead; they're already going through a little 'transplant shock' (an actual horticultural term!). When they're saturated, put them back under their lights and leave them alone for a couple of days to stabilize. Wait a week before feeding.

Remove any mulch from your garden beds to help the soil warm up.

Hardening off (yes; another real one!) At six weeks of age, take your plants outside on warm sunny days and bring them back inside before it starts to cool off. A couple of hours the first day, then increasing the time outside gradually until the first night in the fifties; then they get to spend the whole night out on the town! (Or picnic table.)

Planting: Peppers, tomatoes, melons, etc are all tropical plants that have no sense of humor when it comes to chilly nights. Forget your 'last average frost date'. Forget daytime temps; they don't count. You can't do this by the calendar; instead, keep track of the nighttime lows in the upcoming 10-day forecast. If you see any thirties, forget about planting; same with low forties. High 40s (47 or above) is OK, but you'll get a much better yield if the 10-day shows all fifties at night with maybe a few high forties mixed in there.

Ignore this at your peril! Research has shown time and time again that planting too early can set your precious plants back two to three weeks!

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