Dibbling & Potting Up Demystified

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Dibbling  & Potting Up Demystified

For those who have never worked in a greenhouse or grown plants from seed, there are a number of gardening terms tossed about by the pros that may leave you scratching your heads in confusion.

Two of those terms – dibbling and potting up – turn up in the whisperings and writings of many horticulturists by spring. This is because both terms refer to moving growing plants into larger containers – something that is important to do during the spring growth surge. Knowing the deeper meaning of these terms and how to apply them correctly will help you grow better.

When growing flowers or food from seed, many gardeners choose to lay down much more seed than will be actually be cultivated in a particular parcel of land or pot of soil. This is true whether the seed is sown into a small, sterile medium in a greenhouse or directly into a prepared garden bed. For the most part, seed is relatively inexpensive. Time, on the other hand, is precious. By seeding more than we need, we increase the odds that a good number of seeds will germinate (aka grow). But, if left unchecked, these heavily seeded plantings will likely grow into over-crowded and under-productive plants. The solution: Dibbling!

The term “dibbling” derives from a garden tool called a “dibble”. For some, this tool is used to dig a small hole into which seeds or bulbs are planted. For others, a dibble is a small tool used to help separate young seedlings from one another. The action itself is called “dibbling”. For larger seedlings a tool like the Big Grip Multi-purpose Planting tool will work. To divide smaller, finer seedlings, use your fingers only or try repurposing a spoon-ended frozen drink straw.

When dividing young seedlings, take care not to touch the root end of the plant. Chemicals on your skin can quickly cause delicate roots to whither and die. Instead, carefully break apart the soil around the roots to help separate the plants into individual sprouts. Delicately grasp the top growth of a single plant you wish to keep and insert it into a new, prepared pot with moist soil. This is potting up, whereby a gardener moves a plant from a smaller container to a larger one. (If you are dibbling to thin a seeded garden bed, instead grasp the seedlings you wish to remove, and leave behind individual, strong plants to grow.)


Ideally, plants are “potted up” whenever they have outgrown their current pot and need a little more space. Think of it like a hermit crab discarding a small shell for a larger one. Try to select a pot only a size or two larger than the container in which the plant has been growing. Larger volumes of soil in containers may remain too cold and moist for transplants to thrive. Better to pot up from a two-inch pot to a four or six-inch pot, knowing in a few weeks it may be time to pot up again into a one-gallon container. And, whenever transplanting, the soil should be filled, watered and drained before the transplant is inserted into it.

Now that you’ve mastered the terms, get out there and sow some seeds. Soon enough, you’ll be dibbling with the best of us!

(Many thanks to the Seattle Urban Farm Company Seattle Urban Farm Company for donating plant starts for some of the images included in this article.)