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Gardening column: Seedlings need time to toughen up before being put in garden

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Home and Garden Show

What: The Fort Wayne Home and Garden Show continues today through Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.
Hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m. today, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
Admission is $10, adults; $6, ages 65 and older; and free, ages 15 and younger. For more information, go to www.home-gardenshow.com.

Friday, March 1, 2013 - 12:01 am

Q: I've planted seed and I have seedlings already. What should I do to make sure these plants are ready for the garden?

A: If your plants are annuals, vegetables or flowers, you may need to transplant the seedlings from the tiny starter cells at least once before they will be ready for the garden. Tomato plants often need to be transplanted into larger and larger containers until the weather is warm enough to put them in the garden.

If your seedlings begin to wilt a bit or you can see roots poking out the bottom of the cell, move them into larger cells or even individual small Styrofoam cups (add drain holes).

As these plants grow, in order to help the stems to become sturdy and strong for their life outside, set a rotating fan on low so it moves the air around the plants for an hour or so each day, or lightly run your hand over the plants whenever you check on them.

Once you have plants that are sturdy and at least 4 or 5 inches tall, it will be important to harden them to withstand outdoor conditions before planting them outside.

To do this, you want to treat plants gradually to the stronger outdoor light and temperature by setting them first in the shade for a few hours each day for several days. Then move them into a part shade location and then sunnier until they are setting in full sun for a few hours each day. This process may take a week to 10 days to prepare your plants for the garden.

Don't over-water them during this transition period, and do take them inside if temperatures at night drop below 55-60. Add more sunlight until they are not wilting or looking stressed when in full sun before you finally plant them.

Wait until late May to plant them, then do it on an overcast day or in the evening so they will have a few hours to settle in. If you purchase transplants from a nursery where they have been in a greenhouse the whole time, you should give them a similar treatment before planting them in full sun in the garden.

Q: When should I begin fertilizing my seedlings? And what is the best fertilizer to use?

A: When your seedlings have “true” leaves — these leaves will look like the leaves on a mature plant — you can safely begin fertilizing them once a week. It is recommended that you use a much-diluted solution of low-nitrogen fertilizer to begin with.

If you would like to make your own natural fertilizer that can be used on the seedlings and throughout the growing season on all your plants, the following recipe is inexpensive and easy, and your plants will love it.

Find a pair of panty hose. Fill each foot with compost, and submerge these in a bucket of water. In a couple of days, you will have the best environmentally healthy fertilizer going.

During the growing season, keep this available all the time in the garden, and water all your garden and container plants with it. Also keep a spray bottle handy to spray the stems and leaves.

Jane Ford is an Advanced Master Gardener. Email questions to jaf701@frontier.com. You also can read her What’s Bloomin’ blog at www.news-sentinel.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.