Seeds Series: Thinning Direct Seeded Crops

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


thickly sown spinach germinating

Isn’t it fantastic to see all those tiny plants breaking forth from the Earth not long after you had scattered a bit of seed under a thin layer of soil?

Unfortunately, too many little sprouts crowded closely together will not make for a fantastic harvest. Thinning them will make all the difference, and it isn’t hard to do.

Usually, gardeners elect to sow seeds thickly. By inserting more seeds into a row of earth than are required to accomplish an ideal garden plot, growers have a better chance of getting a good crop. Plus, a packet of seed is often relatively inexpensive and will not be viable for longer than a season or two. Also, within each seed packet, some seeds may not be viable and will never grow. Others may sprout up quickly and get mowed down by slugs. Some may run into other obstacles like chilled soil, freak hailstorms or hungry, pecking birds. Sowing dense plantings of seeds helps out-compete these adverse odds.  Of course, if even a small majority of these seeds do sprout and survive, it is up to the garden to winnow out the many to ensure the production of the few.

After seeding your crops, watch your rows carefully. Pull weeds regularly. Protect newly planted rows from heavy downpours, pesky birds, and voracious bugs. And be sure they are kept moist but not soggy as they begin to grow. Allowing seedbeds or young seedlings to dry out is a sure way to kill your crop fast. In smaller plots, using a watering can to keep your rows moist will also keep you watching your crops closely. This way, when thick seedlings begin to emerge, you will be there to begin thinning right away.


thick rows of radish being thinned by bare hand with Fiskars Watering Can in background


Removing a few small sprouts from between other small sprouts is delicate work. So, go ahead and get your fingers dirty for this chore rather than wear gloves that might limit your sense of touch or even catch and pull plants you would rather leave in the garden. Although it may feel brutal to pull out many young seedlings, if you don’t do it, your crowded garden will not thrive.

Each seed packet should give you some idea of how much spacing plants should be given. But, rather than try to thin to this ideal spacing in just one plucking, consider doing it a few times as the garden grows.

A few considerations:

  • Seeds – even from the same packet – may germinate at different rates, so thinning is an on-going chore.
  • Sometimes seeds germinate in one part of a row, but none sprout in another. Carefully try replanting thinned seedlings into empty spots to fill out your garden beds.
  • Thinning to reduce crowding increases root space and allows for better air and light circulation for better plant health.


Radish crops after a first thinning with Fiskars Watering Can in background


  • Thin root crops like radish, carrot and beets once as they first emerge, so plants aren’t completely overlapping. Then, as they continue to grow, thin them every couple weeks, harvesting young small edibles for your table each time. The last ones will become your biggest of the bunch.
  • Some crops will grow well for a while crowded closely together. Mesculin mixes, greens like spinach and lettuce, and herbs like cilantro and basil, will produce well in crowded groups while they are young. Eventually snip to thin them or pull out whole plants to make room for others to grow larger.
  • Curbit crops, like melons and cucumbers, that are planted in mounds may grow just fine if there are just two or three well spaced in a single mound. More than that? Yank’m out early.
  • Very small sprouts can go into the compost pile; bigger thinned plants can go onto your dinner plate!

And, even if we sow our seeds thickly and coddle them along, sometimes none emerge. If the projected germination time expires and none of your seeds have sprouted, it may be time to plant again. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, planting another round of seeds is the best solution.

Last time in this series: Sowing Seeds Directly 

Next time in this series: Rotating Cool Season Crops Out & Warm Season Crops Into the Garden