How to Easily Separate Vegetable and Flower Seedlings

By Published On: March 8th, 20245.5 min readCategories: Garden

Here’s a simple way to separate and re-plant vegetable and flower seedlings without hurting the roots

As a lazy gardener, I’m always looking for shortcuts and simpler ways of getting things done with results that are as good as doing it the hard way.

One shortcut I’ve discovered is a way to thin seedlings without damaging any of them. This is convenient because you can seed more plants in fewer pots so you’re not tying up your pots with seeds that don’t sprout.

Plus, it’s a heck of a lot easier to sprinkle in a pinch of seeds – especially tiny ones like carrots, lettuce, and basil — than it is to pick out and plant a single seed.

Why separating seedlings can kill them

The biggest problem in separating seedlings is untangling the roots without damaging them. Roots are covered with tiny “hairs” (aka “root hairs”) responsible for absorbing water from the soil and transporting it into the plant so it can eat, breathe, and stand upright. Root hairs are only a single plant cell wide and strip from the root as easily as your own skin cells do when rubbed or scratched.

For larger plants with lots of roots, having a chunk of root hairs rubbed off isn’t fatal. The rest of the plant’s root structure will make up for the lost water absorption. Seedlings, however, have far fewer roots — usually just a few branching off the main root – so the loss of even a few root hairs is significant and frequently deadly. If you’ve ever transplanted seedlings only to watch them wilt and/or die, you’ve seen this first hand

If you’re separating seedlings by removing them from their pot, brushing off as much soil as you can, and then untangling the various plants’ roots from each other, you’re probably ripping root hairs off because the soil sticks to them.

Fortunately, there’s an easier method that not only prevents the root hairs from being stripped, but untangles the roots for you and super-loads the plant with water, minimizing transplant shock even with plants that are notoriously difficult to transplant (I’m looking at you, carrots).

The Seedling Bath

You’ve probably noticed roots stick to soil, which is by design. Soil components – organic material and minerals – offer lots of surface area to which roots attach and anchor the plant. If you’re transplanting seedlings, you want the roots to let go of the soil so they don’t get torn off and damaged. You also want the roots to separate from each other so you’re not forced to tear the root masses apart.

The easiest way to do this is to give the seedlings a bath. Not a scrubby, wash, but a nice, gentle soak.

Here’s how to do it:

Step 1 – Get Your Supplies

First, make sure your seedlings have sprouted their second set of leaves (the first set of “true” leaves). Once they have, you can separate them without worry.

You will need two containers to hold water. The first one should be deep enough to submerge the seedling all the way up to the soil line (A 1-gallon plastic milk jug cut in half is perfect).

Two containers of water and a pot of tomato seedlings in a tray

You need two containers for water, one large and one shallow

The other container should be shallower – only one or two-inches deep. Deep enough to keep the roots submerged in water, but not the seedling’s stem.

Add water to both containers.

Step 2 – Soak the Seedlings and Soil in Water

Gently tap your seedlings and soil from the pot and place them in the larger container standing upright. Allow them to soak in the water for a couple minutes until the soil dissolves in the water.

Seedlings and soil soaking in water

Place your seedlings, soil and all, in the water

Once you see the soil dissolving into the water, gently swish around the base of the seedlings to help any remaining soil fall away.

Seedlings in water with soil dissolving around them

Let the seedlings stand in the water until the soil dissolves

Step 3 – Remove the Soil

Scoop up under the seedlings and gently lift them from the water, swirling the water about to help remove any remaining soil.

lifting seedlings out of water with some soil still attached

Lift the seedlings from the water by scooping under the roots

Dip the seedlings’ roots back into the water several times to remove any remaining soil.

Seedlings with the soil washed away

Swish the seedlings in water to remove the soil and separate them from one another

Step 4 – Separate the Seedlings

Gently separate the seedlings from one another, swirling them in the water to help them untangle without you having to pull them apart.

Then place your separated seedlings into the shallow water dish, draping the leaves over the side of the dish, but leaving the roots fully submerged in water.

Soil-free seedlings sitting in a shallow dish of water

Separated seedlings soaking in the shallow water dish

Leave the seedlings in the water for several minutes so that the roots super saturate with water. If you have multiple pots of seedlings to separate, just let them all rest in the shallow water dish until you have separated them all.

Step 5 – Re-plant in New Soil

Gently re-pot the individual seedlings into their own pots.

Make sure the roots are completely covered in soil and not folding back up where they’ll be exposed to air.

Step 6 – Water Well

Water the re-potted seedlings thoroughly, and set them in indirect sunlight for a couple hours to recover from the transplanting. After that, you can move them back to a sunny location and let them resume growing in their own pots.

Watering freshly re-potted seedlings

Water well to remove any airspace in the soil

That’s it!

This method works equally well for both re-potting and transplanting into the garden. If you’re transplanting directly into a garden bed, make sure the soil is a temperature close to the potted soil to avoid shock.

Freshly potted tomato seedlings

Seedlings separated and re-potted

So, there you go. Now you can mass plant small seeds and easily separate the seedlings later on knowing they’ll be just as healthy and happy as if you’d taking the time to plant individual seeds.

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About the Author

author avatar
Sage Osterfeld
I’m just a guy with nearly an acre of dirt, a nice little mid-century ranch house and a near-perfect climate. But in my mind I’m a landscaper survivalist craftsman chef naturalist with a barbeque the size of a VW and my own cable TV show. I like to write about the stuff I build, grow and see here at Sage's Acre.

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