Gardening Sowing Seeds

Soak Your Seedlings to Disentangle Their Roots

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.

Leek seedlings separating after soaking in water.
After a good soaking, the roots of the seedlings will disentangle without difficulty. Photo:

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.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

19 comments on “Soak Your Seedlings to Disentangle Their Roots

  1. Should I be embarrassed to say that I have done this? I do not often purchase seedlings, but have obtained some tomato plants with two or three seedlings in some of the cells. Although I do not tease them apart very carefully, I do separate the subordinating seedlings from the primary seedlings to plant separately. For basil, I do not bother. I just plant the whole clump.

  2. Such a neat idea! Had never considered it before ? Thank you for sharing!

  3. This is so helpful! I just planted my first seeds last week, so I can’t wait to try this out in a few weeks.

  4. I was taught this trick in elementary school for both flowers & tomatoes plants.
    It has never fail to work, not even once.

  5. aliceest65

    It’s amazing how well this works it’s as if the roots suddenly relax and untangle themselves. I’ve done this for many years. Pure genius. I swear by it.

  6. marianwhit

    This is interesting, I will have to try it…it may depend on the species. Please note I am not disputing, but sharing my own experience, there are many ways to grow plants! My practice is to let the plants dry out a bit (not too much to the point of wilting, but until the soil is “crumbly” and falls easily away from the roots). If the roots are turgid (full of water) I find them to be rather brittle and prone to breaking. If the soil is dryer, the roots “toughen up” and I can handle them with less damage. I put them into damp soil and wait to water them in 8 hours to avoid shocking them. I work with them at the end of the day so they have the humid night to protect them as well, and to avoid working with the little “plantlets” in direct sun. What I love about gardening is that it is part art, part science (like medicine) and there are many methodologies. It is a slow moving symphony where we are the conductors of our own slow-moving orchestra of plants, with the freedom to make our own decisions and apply our own methodologies. The difference may be that I have arthritis in my hands and can be clumsy with them. I find the same applies when weeding…if I weed right after a rain, the plant tops come off without the roots because the plant is full of water and brittle. If I wait until about 2-3 days after a good rain, until a handful of my soil will crumble in my hand (or I can’t squeeze out a lot of water), I am 10 times as effective at weeding out the whole plant, roots and all.

    • Every garden experience is differet… although I must admit I certainly weeding when the soil humidity is just right makes it much, much easier.

  7. This is a great idea! It can be hard not to damage a few plants when trying to untwine them. This article is very timely. Thank you!

  8. Timely advice. Thank you.

  9. Geoffrey S Baldwin

    Learned as a kid not to disturb the roots, learned later with Celery and generalized it to short root seedlings to gently tease them apart. Now you’ve enabled me to plant more than a few seeds in a cell.

  10. What a wonderful idea, I have been gardening forever and never knew this trick! Thanks so much.

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