Greenhouse Plant ALERT

healthy but very tender blueberries

healthy but very tender blueberries

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Have you heard of the gardening term “hardening off”? This refers to the process of taking a brand-new nursery-raised plant from greenhouse conditions (ie diffused light rather than direct sunlight, no wind) to real-world garden life.

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Your new plants will look GREAT when you buy them… big tender leaves, lots of new growth, good root system (check that before you buy, by the way!). But if you are buying them in a greenhouse or from a big box store, you really want to make sure to go through the hardening off process before subjecting them to the full force of a Spring in Montana (or anywhere else, for that matter). This is a normal procedure and nothing that the nurseries or greenhouses are doing wrong!

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Find a place in your yard that has solid partial shade. By that, I mean that you never get more than 6 hours of direct sun at one time, and really, 4 is better. Under a tree? Northeast exposure? Failing those, some sort of sunblock fabric will work. Just remember that you wouldn’t put a newborn baby in direct sun, and your seedlings, young shrubs, or fruit-bearing plants will all need that same protection at first.

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You also need to protect them from full-on wind. Typical Spring wind gusts can really do a number on a young plant! Winds are dessicating, or drying. They damage the cellular walls, can break weak stems or branches, twist leaves until the plant health is all but destroyed. Let your babies become accustomed to wind with some protection first so they can develop some strength in resistance and sturdy-up.

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Make sure that you check your young plants at least once a day, watering as needed. The small containers plants are grown in do dry out quicky, especially outside. Watering them with a weak “starter solution” (available at plant nurseries, inexpensive, goes a long way), or weak compost or earthworm casting “tea”, will help plants prepare for and recover quickly from transplant shock.

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After a week with wind protection and part shade, you can move the plants to conditions approximate to where they will live. Full sun? Partial shade? Give them a few days with those conditions with regular waterings and attention before planting them.

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What happens if you do NOT harden off your baby plants? You may likely find sun scorched leaves that can no longer photosynthesize (or are limited) to provide health to the plant… in many cases, every leaf on the plant will drop. If you manage to save the plant after that, it’s rare, and recovery will take far longer than the 1-2 week hardening-off process would have.

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Do note: this is not just about shrubs and fruit-bearing plants, your young vegetable plants need hardening off as well! A little bit of early protection and preparation, some solid time spent teaching young plants to handle the conditions of the real world, and you have the recipe for a healthy garden. And healthy kids, come to think of it…

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