The Q&A Archives: Separating Seedlings

Question: I have seedlings of different varieties of vegetables (beans, corn, broccoli, peppers, eggplant, peas, tomatoes). Each pot contains three plants of one kind. Since it's still too early to plant these seedlings outside, I need to transplant them to bigger pots. How do I safely separate the seedlings from each other without tearing the roots? I am very new at trying to grow my own vegetables (or any plant for that matter) and could use any help that you could give me.

Answer: In a word, gently. Here's an easy method to use. First, have your larger pots ready for the transplants. Water the first pots well and allow them to drain. Then cup your hand over a pot with the seedlings between your fingers and turn the pot over. You may have to squeeze the pot a bit to get the soil to ease out into your hand. Gently drop the root ball onto a table or bench so that the soil and plants separate. I then gather the roots in my hand and gently pull the roots apart. If you need to handle the top of the plant, handle by a leaf rather than the stem. If the stem breaks, the plant will not survive, but the plant can replace a leaf. Avoid letting the bare roots sit in the open air for more than a few minutes or they will dry out. Replant immediately, a little deeper than they were before, and firm the soil gently so you don't squish them, but hard enough that they stand up securely. Water well to settle the soil and remove any air pockets. That's it.

Beans, corn, and peas should be planted outside where they are to grow because they grow large very quickly and don't fare well when transplanted. Plant peas as soon as the soil has drained and can be worked, as they grow best in cool weather. Corn and bean need warmth to germinate, and should be planted after the danger of frost has passed. Broccoli seedlings can be set outside early. Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant need warm soil and warm weather to grow well, so plant the seedlings out about a week after the last frost.

Finally, make sure to acclimate your seedlings to the elements before transplanting them into the garden. They need to become accustomed to the wind and sun gradually, starting in a very sheltered location with a little early morning sun and moving day by day into more sunlight over the course of a week or so. Bring them in each night, and by the end of the week they should be able to stay out all night.

Have fun with your seedlings!

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