Thinning seedlings is important to grow strong and healthy crops. Overcrowded plants can result in a whole range of problems, from underproducing fruit and vegetables, increased vulnerability to drought, and mould and mildew.
Thinning and trimming plants are common practices that ensure the proper spacing of your plants.
When starting crops from seeds, whether in pots, trays, or the ground, thinning seeds after germination is an essential step.
Typically, you will be planting more seeds than you need for your rows. This is because not all of the seeds will germinate. Over-seeding your land is a great way to ensure full coverage, but once they sprout they will need to be thinned to create room for mature plants. By removing some of the shoots which are planted too close together, the remaining seedlings will thrive.
It is tempting to let all of your seedlings grow – but it is much more important to help as many as possible to thrive by giving them the space they need to grow. If you don’t thin your seedlings, they will be stunted. This means they will grow into tiny adult plants that compete for resources and can only create small or even unripe produce.
How to thin seedlings
- To identify the strongest seedlings (which you’ll leave in the soil), look for the seedlings that are most compact with foliage and have the thickest stems. The tallest plants are not always the strongest – as plants that are lacking sunlight reach out and grow into long, scraggly shapes.
- Snip the weaker plants away at the base of the seedling, using a small pair of gardening scissors or shears. These tools should be cleaned with soapy water or rubbing alcohol between uses. If you try to thin seedlings with your hands, you can damage the delicate roots of the plants that you want to keep!
- Water and fertilise the remaining seedlings.
With larger plants, it can be possible to separate the seedlings by pulling apart the dirt and separating the roots. However, this can be risky and damage both plants, leading to two stunted plants.
The task of separating tiny seedlings is generally considered too much work to be worth it, so thinning is the more common method of spacing out your crop.
When to thin seedlings
When a seed first grows, it sends out a root and what will become a stem into the soil. The stem grows upwards and produces seed leaves – the very first leaf of the plant which is typically round and green. Soon after, the true leaves will grow, which will be the shape and colour typical to the crop.
It’s best to wait until seedlings have their first set of true leaves before thinning them.
Then the sooner that your plants have full access to sunlight, the better. This means that your seedlings ought to be given plenty of space as soon as possible through thinning.
The longer you wait, the more likely it is that their growth has been stunted through competition and lack of light.
Pick a mild, damp day or water the plants before thinning as this helps to avoid damaging the roots of your remaining seedlings.
Pruning established plants
Plants need access to sunlight so too many plants crammed together can make them all unhealthy and unproductive. It becomes too difficult to grow at all, let alone produce and ripen fruit and vegetables. As a general rule of thumb, you should always be able to see a little light through your vegetable plants.
When plants have matured or nearly matured, it is a great time to prune the plant – creating a balance between photosynthesising leaves and room for flowers. Trimming at the bottom of the plant and the middle leaves of the plant will improve access to pooling water, avoiding rotten foliage infecting your plants, and will make room for produce.
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We are of course not agronomists, we just want to help you get the most out of your crops sustainably – so for more help on looking after your crops and soils it is a good idea to speak to an agronomist in your local area who can provide you tailored advice for your land and what you are growing.