Young tomato plants may be planted outside once all danger of frost has passed, but those started off in a protected environment will need a transition period to get them used to the conditions outdoors.
Hardening off is the process of allowing young plants to adapt to the wind, sunlight, and fluctuating temperatures outdoors. Put the plants outdoors for an hour on the first day, two hours on the next, and work up to five or six hours. Avoid exposing them to full sun or wind.
Once plants are hardened off, they can be planted outdoors in suitably prepared soil. Be ready to protect young plants with a layer of horticultural fleece or newspapers in the event of an unexpected cold front.
Hardiness, or ability to withstand cold, is a complex quality in plants. No tomato plants are able to withstand frost, but their ability to cope with cool conditions varies. Some plants such as 'Sub-Arctic Plenty' (p34) can set fruit under quite cool conditions, but others will need shelter to create a favorable microclimate.
You can use a cold frame or cloche as a halfway haven for hardening off young tomato plants, between indoors and out.
In areas with a short growing season, you can also use cold frames and cloches to protect young tomatoes after planting and help extend the season. Make your own (below) or use ready-made models. Another way to shelter a young plant and enable you to plant it out a month or so earlier is a wall o'water—a circle of water-filled plastic bottles around the plant. The water absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night.
Tunnel cloche To make a cloche, drape a horticultural fleece over wire hoops. It will protect plants in the period after planting.
Cold frame Insulate your plants so they slowly acclimatize to cool temperatures. Open the frame at intervals for good ventilation.
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