Murdering Seedlings

Lettuce seedlings_LAH_9883I’ve waiting all winter for spring to finally arrive (and it took forever this year). The garden was planned, veggie varieties were chosen, seeds were ordered. When the package arrived, the seed packets were sorted and stuffed into baggies to wait until May. With the first warmer days, I finally ventured outside, prepared my planting beds, hooked up the soaker hoses, and sowed those seeds. Then I misted them daily, lest they dry out and die. Weeds sprouted and were carefully extracted from the seed bed. Then, at last, the first tiny cotyledons showed above ground. My seeds were germinating!

And now you want me to pull half of them out? You must be crazy!

Tomato seedlings_LAH_9886Thinning is never anyone’s favorite garden chore, and no wonder. We go to such lengths to persuade our seeds to grow. We’re emotionally invested; they’re our babies!

But unless we sow every seed carefully in place where it is to grow, thinning is essential to a productive garden. We need to grit our teeth and pull out those extra plants… such as the surplus tomato seedlings shown here.

Plants growing too close together are competing for limited amounts of air, sunlight, water, and other nutrients. We weed our gardens so the dandelions and thistles don’t choke out our favorite veggies. Extra carrots, lettuce, or bean plants are just as much a problem. It helps if you think of those plants you’re killing as just more weeds.

Some crops don’t mind a bit of crowding. Two lettuce plants growing in one spot may not form a head, but if all you’re after are the individual leaves, there’s no harm done. Two carrots, however, cannot occupy the same spot. You’ll end up with two stunted, misshapen roots, neither of them edible. Timely thinning is particularly crucial for root crops. The same is true for cabbage, cauliflower, and other plants that need room to head.

There are various ways to go about thinning unwanted seedlings. You can pull them out. This works well for tap-rooted plants, since the long, straight root won’t disturb the surrounding plants as it slides out of the soil. Plants with more fibrous roots, such as lettuce and tomatoes, should be pinched off at the soil level as early as possible. The remaining stem and roots will slowly decompose without damaging the neighbors.

Lettuce seedlings_LAH_9880How do you tell which seedlings should stay, and which ones should go? Start by removing the weaker plants, those that seem defective or less robust. Then, keeping the proper spacing of your final plants in mind, thin the ones that are out of place. Some crops—lettuce, spinach, beets, and the like—are edible at such an early stage that you can eat your thinnings. (Note the pinched-off stem and wilting leaf to the front left of the lettuce seedling in this photo.)

I hate thinning so much that I’ve worked out ways to avoid as much of it as possible. If my seeds are fresh, I prefer to sow one or at most two seeds where each plant is to grow. Once they sprout, I can clearly see which ones to remove. If I sow my seeds indoors, I can sometimes “rescue” the extra seedling. I carefully tease it from the potting mix and replant it in its own little cell. This works particularly well with lettuce and tomatoes, especially if I get to them as soon as they put out their seed leaves.

Zinnia seedlings_LAH_9887Unless I start every plant inside, with one seed per 6-pack cell (such as these zinnias, left), I’m going to have to thin seedlings. It’s one of those chores that gets worse the more I procrastinate, so I just need to go do it now while I’m thinking of it.

“I’ll be outside, dear, murdering seedlings.”

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