Thinning Might Hurt You, But it Helps Your Crops

Your garden is prepped and you plant a row of carrot seeds or several cucumber seeds, just to be safe.You’re thrilled when you get a nearly 100 percent germination rate. Wow, you must be good! Or in my case, lucky. As I beam with pride, I know that the next step is to thin the seedlings. But sometimes, I fail to heed my own advice or that of horticulturalists. This year, I am trying to do a better job of thinning some of my vegetables. Baby steps…

romaine lettuce thinned
This head lettuce is lined up nicely, but it’s still a little closer together than recommended. Of course, I can cut and enjoy it anytime — before the plants get too close.

First, let’s look at the reasons why thinning helps your crops and yield, and even improves the health of flowers you start as seeds in your garden:

  • A plant can only provide so much energy to the leaves, stems and fruit. If your aim is to get as many health, juicy tomatoes as possible, then most expert gardeners recommend pruning suckers from indeterminate, or vining, tomatoes. We often trim a few lower branches too, especially if they’re touching the ground.
  • The same goes for some fruit trees, though I’ve seen some advice that says not to bother too much with thinning unless it’s obvious that a small branch can’t handle the number of budding apples or pears. And clearly, a home gardener is probably safer letting nature and birds take care of thinning out fruit from upper branches! We chose not to thin our cherry tree and it handled the fruit just fine. The birds helped out more than I would have liked, but there were several bunches of six or more cherries on one spur and most of the tree’s fruit ripened fine.
sour cherries on tree
These cherries were nearly ready to pick and growing fine in a large bunch.
  • With vegetables planted in groups or rows, such as carrots or lettuce, thinning is more to avoid overcrowding. The plants’ roots need space to grow underground – especially true of root vegetables. If crowded, the roots might not support full, healthy growth. And above ground, the leaves need air circulation and sun. Crowded plants hide bugs and hold water on their leaves. It’s like being squashed up in bleachers at a baseball game. Aren’t you more comfortable sitting out on the grass (or in one of those chairs with a cupholder), with the wind blowing through your hair?
carrots in container
I had to do a second thinning on the carrots in this container. They are way too crowded.
Thinning carrots in container
OK, still closer than the recommended two inches in a few spots, but closer. I’ll add a few of the tiny ones pulled up to my next salad.
  • I’ll add another reason to thin that I can more easily relate to. If I feel like pulling up seedlings that made it is wasteful, I have to look at continually watering seedlings I eventually have to thin out – or even worse, plants that grow to nearly mature height and then need pulling up because of a disease or just provide a low yield – as wasting water. It’s not right to let that plant continue soaking up water that could be put to better use.
green bean seedlings
These green bean seedlings are just about right. They can be four to six inches apart, since most of the growth — and the beans — vine up above the plant.

So, what can you do with seedlings so that you don’t feel like you’re wasting a viable plant, small as it may be? The little survivor, that broke through the soil and bore leaves? If the flower or vegetable is one that transplants well, you can move it to another spot, or try it in a container. Lettuce seedlings and carrot seedlings from a second thinning are often large enough to eat, even if they’re mostly garnish on your salad.

Of course, you can also compost the plants you thin and leaves or suckers you prune. When thinning, take care not to pull up the root of an adjacent plant. It helps to thin when the soil is damp and to avoid procrastinating until plants are large and closer together.

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