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By April 27, 2017 0 Comments Read More →

Zen and the Art of Pricking Out

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For Elizabeth Arter pricking out seedlings is one of the real joys of gardening not a tedious task that seems to drag and drag. Instead make it a time for calm, made calmer by doing a bit of planning and using a bit of common sense.

Each season I extend the range of kitchen garden varieties that I raise from seed for transplanting into open ground, or patio containers. The exception is root crops that mostly do best if sown where they are to grow to maturity. An under cover start gives vegetables an early advantage, protects small seedlings from adverse weather and pests, and from being lost among emerging weeds.

It involves some extra work to prick out and care for the young seedlings, but transplants will grow away quickly, there is no overcrowding in the row so that thinning is not needed, and because plants are in the ground for less time, you can often fit an extra crop into the growing season.

Sowing seeds, then watching them come up and develop has always fascinated  me, and that’s the main reason why I so like pricking the tiny seedlings out. It’s such a pleasant job to do in the greenhouse on one of the many early spring days when winds that appear to come straight from the North Pole chill you right through when working outdoors. Then, on warm sunny days in late spring and early summer, I’ll stand a table on the grass under the old Bramley apple tree to prick out in its shade rather than in the nearby greenhouse.

Pricking out is much easier now than it was in my younger days, because there is a wider range of potting composts, plus seed tray inserts and modules galore.  The thick, white polystyrene ones are warm and good for use early in the growing season, but I prefer thinner plastic inserts and pots, for use once we are really into spring. I use a general-purpose potting compost for vegetables, sometimes buying large bags, or at other times use the contents of growbags – which are far easier for a less energetic gardener to handle.


I sow all smaller seeds in small pots filled with damp vermiculite, whether they are to be stood in the windowsill propagator in February, or in the cold greenhouse in late spring. The vermiculite absorbs water readily, but gives good drainage and access to the oxygen needed for germination. Also, the tiny seedlings are easily lifted out from it without root damage. You can sow direct into modules or individual flowerpots, but even with large seeds such as courgettes, I sow a few in a small pot, then prick out very soon after germination into larger, individual pots.


A small stainless steel widger is a valuable little tool to use for lifting tiny plants out of the seed pan. Equally useful is a contrived tool made by cutting off the two outer prongs of a table fork, which are then attached to a wooden handle using insulating tape.


Sow small amounts of seed – unless you have a very large garden, it is wisest to sow a succession of small amounts of seed rather than tipping in whole packets, though that will be needed if dealing with costly varieties such as modern greenhouse cucumbers, where the average contents of a packet may be just four or five seeds. Staggered sowing will avoid gluts and gaps in your supply of lettuce and other quick-maturing crops. It will also give you a second or even a third chance if the first sowing fails to come up, and does away with a mass of tiny, tangled seedlings that all need pricking out at the same time.

  • Prick out promptly – once seed has germinated, prick out the seedlings as soon as they can be handled. The job is easiest at that point, and particularly with tomatoes, a delay of only a few days can reduce the subsequent crop.
  • Handle by a seed leaf only – perhaps not so easy if these are very tiny, but essential because handling by the stem can easily damage a seedling.
  • Firm compost gently – when preparing seed tray inserts, pots, and other modules for pricking out, firm the compost carefully to avoid air pockets, but lightly enough to allow air in and surplus water to drain out.
  • Keep compost damp – newly pricked out seedlings need damp compost to help them make new roots and grow away quickly, and in sunny weather may need watering twice daily. Never allow the compost to become soaking wet, and be sparing with the watering can on duller, chilly days.
  • Warm water and compost – the contents of any bags of potting compost that have been standing in the open in winter can be very cold. Bring them into the greenhouse or any other warmer place for a couple of days before use. In the same way, keep a dustbin or other small container of water in the greenhouse to warm slightly, rather than using water straight from the mains for vulnerable baby seedlings.
  • Label clearly – some tiny vegetable plants look very like one another, and it is vital to make sure you know which is which. For example, if growing both celery and celeriac, they are identical when very young.
  • Be prepared to pot on – quick-growing crops like lettuce, brassicas, courgettes and their relatives can stay in the same modules from pricking out to transplanting, but slower-growing subjects such as tomatoes will need potting on as they develop. With tomatoes sown in February to go into the cold greenhouse in mid April, I prick out into 6cm pots* or modules that hold a similar amount of compost, I then move them on to 8–10cm pots once they are outgrowing these, and if growth has been rapid may pot on again before planting out.



Posted in: Gardening Tips

About the Author:

Ruth Tott is the publisher of Home Farmer Magazine, and together with her husband, Paul Melnyczuk, Editor,is founder of the company. But her background is far removed having specialised in Costume History with a Post-Grad diploma in Museum Studies to boot. A far cry from looking after chickens, growing veg and making bread!

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