How To Thin Seedlings

How To Thin Seedlings

You have worked hard on planning, preparing, and planting your vegetable garden. It is a delight to walk out to the garden and find that all the hard work has paid off with a bounty of beautiful seedlings sprouting.

But now you must do the unthinkable, the diabolical – the insane. You must thin your seedlings.

This is a very tough pill for most gardeners to swallow, because naturally we want to keep and nurture every seedling that sprouts. We put the seeds in the ground in order to grow a gorgeous plant – we owe the seedling a chance to thrive, right? Well, maybe.

What Is Thinning Seedlings Out?

Typically when sowing our favorite vegetable seeds, we put two or three seeds in each hole. When all the seeds germinate and sprout seedlings, we end up with the two or three plants in one hole. Although this type of success can be a great thing, most times the seedlings need to be thinned out so there is just one seedling per hole.

Having just one seedling per hole is much more desirable than having two or more. When there is more than one plant that close together they tend to compete for water and nutrients resulting in less than stellar performance.

Diseases spread much more easier between plants that are grown in close proximity to one another as well. Because of these factors, gardeners must do the hideous task of thinning out the seedlings to just one plant per hole.

Different Ways Of Thinning Out Seedlings

There are basically two different methods of thinning seeds out. The first methods is by carefully digging the grouping of seedlings and separating them. The separate seedlings can then be replanted within the garden. This methods works well with tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant to name a few.

What about root crops and some other vegetables? They should be thinned out in a totally different manner. The second method is a very simple process. Once the seedlings have jutted out of the soil a few inches, you must choose one plant that you will keep and eliminate the others in that same hole. Here is a demonstration of this method of thinning out seedlings:

This is a raised bed of butter beans that I planted last weekend. I planted three seeds per hole in this raised bed. Most of the holes have two or three of the butter bean seedlings that have sprouted. This is a perfect time for me to thin out the seedlings.

Butterbean Seedlings

I do not want to disturb the seedlings that I want to keep, so the best practice for eliminating the undesired seedlings is to just clip them off at the soil level using a pair of scissors or garden shears. Choose the biggest, strongest, and healthiest seedling out of the bunch to keep, and clip the remaining seedlings. If all the seedlings in a particular hole look really good, and you are unsure which one to keep – try the ennie, mennie, minnie, moe method. It works like a charm!

Clip the Seedling at Soil Level

I cut each seedling at soil level until I am left with just one seedling per hole.

Thin Seedlings

Now that I have cut away the two unwanted seedlings I am left with one awesome seedling that will not be competing with other seedlings for water and nutrients. This seedling will now grow to provide a wonderful harvest of butter beans.

Butterbean Seedling After Thinning

Here is how the bed of butter beans look after I am finished thinning out the seedlings.

Bed of Butterbean Seedlings After Thinning

The seedlings that are clipped can be added to a compost pile or some can be used in salads (such as lettuces, kale, swiss chard, carrot tops, and other greens).

Get Your Seedlings Started Right

7 Comments on How To Thin Seedlings

  1. Very enlightening! Before I had no idea what thinning out seedlings was about, though now I understand it perfectly! Thank you! Do you put more than one seed in a whole in case all of them don’t sprout? Callum =D

    • Hi Callum,

      Yes, normally I put two to three seedlings per hole for the exact purpose you mentioned. If you put just one seed in a hole, it may not germinate, and you will have to start the whole process over. You lose valuable time doing this. By planting a couple seeds in the hole, it gives you the (almost) guarantee that at least one will sprout. If all the seeds sprout, then you just thin them out to one seedling.

      Thank you for your comment and for visiting. Please stop back by any time. 🙂


  2. Thanks for this post! I have a square foot garden. I know about thinning out seedlings, but was feeling extremely guilty about thinning out my cucumber plants I am about to transplant outside. I have two in each peat pot, and feel horrible about having to cut one out! I suppose that’s just the way it goes!

    • Hi Jennifer,

      It is difficult to throw away a perfectly good seedling. I always hate thinning out seedling because I’m thinking, “Geesh, what if I pick the wrong one?” LOL

      You could always carefully separate them and just transplant them elsewhere if you have the space. 🙂


      • I’m about to try putting my seedlings into a bucket of water to separate them gently – that way I hope to use them all, and not have to kill my unborn children!

  3. When thinning seedlings, can you dig them all up and replant all of them if you are very careful not to disturb the roots?

  4. Thanks for the demo. I am having a hard time talking my husband into this. He thinks it is a giant waste of the seeds. I planted two or three per hold in my city picker and they all grew.

    It does seem a great shame. I am going to have a hard time myself choosing through my plants. They are all doing so well!

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