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Gardening 101: Separating Seedlings

updated May 6, 2019
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Vegetable and herb seedlings are often sold in a clump in a small container. One of the biggest mistakes beginning gardeners make is planting the whole clump instead of separating out the individual plants. The crowded seedlings end up growing into a hopeless jumble because they have to compete for water, nutrients, and sunlight. Teasing the plants apart before planting helps get them off to a healthy start.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Single seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are usually potted up into 4-inch pots, but these containers also often house clumps of salad greens, basil, cilantro, dill, fennel, and other herbs.

Before you plant seedlings, its a good idea to take a peek in the container. If you see several individual stems in the pot, that’s your clue that the seedlings need to be separated before planting.

To remove the seedlings from their container, squeeze its sides gently to loosen up the roots. Place one hand at the base of the plants and use your other to slide the pot off the root ball. Gently work the root ball apart. I find it helpful to subdivide the clump into two or three pieces and then carefully tease out the individual seedlings.

Try to hold the seedligns either by their roots or their leaves to prevent damaging the stems. Plant the seedlings as soon as possible after separating them. Space basil and dill seedlings 6 inches apart in a container and 10 inches apart in the garden. Space heads of lettuce, fennel, and Swiss chard 8 to 10 inches apart in the garden and slightly closer in containers.

Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Kitchen Gardening will be published in January 2012.

(Images: All images by Willi Galloway)