It seems a shame to destroy perfectly good little vegetable seedlings. But when rows of carrots, radishes and lettuce emerge from the garden soil as thick as hair on a dog’s back, something must be done. If allowed to progress, too-thick seedlings never develop, resulting in carrots thin as shoestrings by season’s end.
There’s an old garden saying: “Plant ’em thick, and thin ’em quick.” Thinning is the gardening term for removing excess plants within a row so the remaining seedlings are properly spaced, giving each the chance to develop to its intended potential size, shape and quality.
Seed packets usually tell the preferred final spacing of seedlings. That usually means removing the excess. Large-seeded vegetables like beans, peas, cucumber, pumpkin, melons, squash and corn are easy to space the seeds at the appropriate distance apart while planting.
But tiny seeds like carrots, spinach, lettuce, radish and parsnips are more difficult to space appropriately, usually resulting in too-thick emergence. Most of these are best thinned to about 1 inch apart.
How to thin? As soon as little seedlings are large enough to handle, (about 1 to 2 inches high) they can be thinned. There are two ways. You can grasp the excess seedling with your fingers, and gently pull out, trying not to overly disturb the remaining plants. Or a small scissors can be used to cut off seedlings slightly below soil line. Thinnings can be added to salads, soups and sandwiches.
After thinning, water soil if dry. Watering helps the remaining seedlings to perk up. Sometimes they get a little wilted from the process of having neighboring seedlings removed.