Trouble Hardening Off Seedlings

I have successfully started plants from seed but have lost them during the "hardening off" period. I work full time so I am not able to put plants out for as long as they probably need to be out there. What would you suggest?

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I know that problem well! Do you have an enclosed porch--somewhere that gets filtered light and won't get too hot during the day? That might be the place to start. I've successfully hardened off seedlings by placing them in a spot that receives morning sun, but is also shaded by midday. Watch where the midday shadows fall on the northeast side of your house, and see if there's a spot like this.

Since small containers can dry out very quickly in the sun and wind, place them in a protected spot (out of strong winds) and water them well in the morning. If it is predicted to be a sunny day, I even let them sit with a little water in the tray, just to be sure they don't dry out by the time I get home 9 or 10 hours later. (You could also choose a site on the northwest side of the house that receives afternoon sun. I like morning sun because it is less strong and usually the mornings are a little cooler.)

Another problem you might encounter is that some mornings it may only be in the 40's, but by afternoon it warms up to the 70's. You don’t want to put tomatoes, peppers, and other heat-lovers out on those 40 degree morning! I've gone so far as to set a garden cart out in the sun on those cool mornings, cover it with an old window, and put in 5 or 6 gallon jugs filled with hot water to warm it up. Then I set the seedlings in the cart and place it in a spot where it will be shaded by early afternoon, so it won't get too hot and “cook” the seedlings.

Try to gradually acclimate the seedlings to being outdoors over the course of a few weeks, increasing their exposure to the elements little by little. (Remember, though, that small containers will dry out very quickly in the sun and wind.) And even after you set them in the garden, keep an eye on them and be prepared to cover warm season crops at night if a cold snap threatens.

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