Thinning Vegetable Seedlings

comments (10) May 27th, 2009

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ChrisMcLaughlin Chris McLaughlin, contributor
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Photo by D.B.Blas under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.Click To Enlarge

Photo by D.B.Blas under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.


All of your seed planting efforts have come to fruition and you are finally witnessing your success as little seedlings pop through the soil and reach for the sky. They’re tiny things and still so fragile. You hover over them as if they were toddlers and with watering can in hand, whisper good morning as you gently shower them. And now…

I’m going to tell you to rip half of them out. I know - it just seems wrong. It goes against every plant-mother’s grain to perform such a hideous task. This is where you get to wear your grown-up gardener panties and do what you have to do. Gardening is not for the faint of heart, so get used to it.

In order for a gardener to yield the best and the biggest crops, the plants need to absorb as many valuable nutrients as possible and not have to fight for elbow room from its neighbor. Crops that compete with others just end up with less to offer the gardener both in the shape and size of the veggie as well as in yield.

I hope you kept the seed packets because they have some useful information on the back of them like just how closely each veggie should be grown. If not, break out a book or the internet and look each vegetable up.

The news isn’t bad for all of the seedlings. If you’re thinning lettuce or leafy crops, you can take a spoon or other handy object, gently lift out the guys that need to go, and transplant them elsewhere.

If you’re thinning out root crops such as radishes or carrots, however, they face a grim fate. That said, now isn’t the time to go all Rambo on me and start tearing at the offending seedlings like a wild thing. If you pull out seedlings all willy-nilly, you’re apt to damage the root of the guys next to him that drew the lucky card and get to stay.

The best way to thin seedlings (unless you’re transplanting some leafy guys) is to get a pair of small scissors and just cut off their heads. Well, in practice, you should aim closer to soil-level, but I was going for a visual here.

I know you’re looking for a way out; some planting loophole out of this dirty contract. Okay, I can toss you a nugget. If you’ve prepared your veggie bed exceptionally well and it’s loaded with lots of organic compost and composted manure, you can let the veggies get a little bit cozier.

Personally, I feel like I redeem myself for the havoc I wreak on my veggie seedlings when I throw them to my chicken babies.


posted in: thinning seedlings, why thin vegetable seedlings

Comments (10)

gardenchef writes: Love this post finding it a year later but the plan is still the same. I will thin my lettuce seedlings tomorrow and try a couple per peat pot.
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Posted: 4:11 pm on March 26th
tenorjam writes: i grow lettuce in flats 4-5 seed then thin them when they sprout, i feel bother ther before serious roots form. i thinnrd the out to 1 or 2 per cell then put them under a mister on a timerseedlings don't need alot of water at one but frequent mistings ang they are happy angd the thinnings aren't wasted. Why waste them just be gentle and use a shrimp fork that has a tiny spoon.
Posted: 9:16 am on January 9th
tessamac22 writes: i love this! i no its so hard to take out the seedlings that you no wont make it! i feel like crying when i have to thin them!
Posted: 6:08 pm on June 20th
peddacious writes: Veeta, we planted our first vegetable garden this year. I did my thinning before reading this article. Apparently I didn't do a very good job putting on my "grown-up gardener panties," because I couldn't bring myself to put anything in the compost! In an effort to save every living thing I planted, I transplanted cabbage and Romaine lettuce. I also planted ... drum roll please ... RADISHES! Everything I transplanted is doing wonderfully!
Posted: 7:20 pm on June 16th
heritage51 writes: All these things are great. But You can use radish starts in you salad, as well carrot. Later
Posted: 9:56 am on June 4th
KarenBudnick writes: I just transplanted quite a few lettuce seedlings - most of them made it. They need protection for a few days from sun or heavy rain. I snip the ones that are too close to pull and transplant the rest. It can't hurt to try!
Posted: 8:19 pm on May 27th
ChrisMcLaughlin writes: Good call, Ruth! I actually thought of that after I wrote this...yum!
Posted: 3:03 pm on May 27th
Ruth writes: Ah, thinning. It took me decades until I could even contemplate uprooting and discarding any seedlings. Radish thinnings, by the way, are tasty in salads (see http://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/5404/first-salads-of-the-season.
Posted: 2:23 pm on May 27th
ChrisMcLaughlin writes: I would move the mesclun early so the roots don't become established and then get completely annoyed with the move.

I'm with you on the carrots - I'm about to do the same!
Posted: 1:39 pm on May 27th
Veeta writes: Could you be more specific about which leafy crops can be transplanted when thinning? For example, should I bother moving mesclun, or just cut it when it gets big enough to eat (and let it be crowded until then)?
I am taking the little scissors to my carrots this weekend--snip snip; sniff, sniff.


Posted: 10:53 am on May 27th
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