How can you separate such densely entwined seedlings without damaging them? Photo: alisafarov, depositphotos
By Larry Hodgson
When you grow your own seedlings, it often happens that they start to become too crowded, lacking space due to competition with their neighbors.
If so, that’s easy enough to fix. Thin them out! There should only be one seedling par pot or cell, after all, so keep the strongest one and cut the others off at the base with scissors. One pot, one plant: it’s always the ideal situation. Moreover, if the seedlings are herbs or vegetables, the seedlings you clip off are undoubtedly edible.
So, it’s your first harvest: congratulations!
But I Want Them All!
“But no!” you say. “I want them all!” For that, I hope you realize that you’ll need lots of space receiving plenty of light, lots of pots, and lots of soil. But hey, they’re your seedlings and if you want to keep every single one of them, that’s your business. (I’ll bet you won’t be so particular after you’ve been gardening for a few years, though!)
So, you want to divide these dense clumps of seedlings and plant them each in its own pot or cell. That seems easy enough. Except that, if there really is a lot of them in a very tiny pot, their roots will be seriously intertwined, almost as if they have been knitted together. Trying to separate them without damaging them is like trying to separate conjoined twins. Rather than helping them, you’re more likely to seriously damage the roots and end up killing or at least weakening the very seedlings that so badly you wanted to protect!
Your little project could turn into a disaster!
Soak ’Em Free
Luckily, there is an easy way to disentangle young seedling roots, an age-old trick I learned from my dad half a century ago. Just use water as a detangler! And it’s so easy to do.
Start by removing the root ball of intermingled seedlings from its pot. Place the root ball in a bowl of lukewarm water. (Don’t give a thermal shock to seedlings that are still so fragile by setting them in cold water!)
Wait 5 to 10 minutes. You’ll see that a good part of the potting mix simply falls free of the root ball all on its own.
Swish seedlings back and forth a bit and you will see even more potting soil fall off and roots will start to come free.
Wait another 5 to 10 minutes and swish them again. By now almost all the potting soil will have dropped off and the roots will relax and really start slipping apart, as if they had been lubricated.
Now when you tug lightly on a seedling again, it will magically separate from its companions. So, you will now have a healthy seedling in your hand that you can, using moist potting soil, transplant into its own pot or cell without breaking even the slightest root.
Continue that way with all the other seedlings … or at least as many as you can really handle.
Best of luck with all your seedlings!
Article adapted from one previously published in this blog on March 25, 2016.