I recently heard some stories about gardening that surprised me. The first came from a blog of a new vegetable gardener. She had listened to a video posted by a local garden center and was amazed to learn that when you start seeds in peat pots, you have to thin the pots so that there’s just one plant in each pot. Her logic had been that more plants = more produce.
Then my sister told me the story of a couple of coworkers who had given up trying to grow onions and beets. They said that the onions never bulbed and the beets grew nothing but leaves. When they were asked if they thinned the plants, they didn’t know what that was.
As someone who’s gardened his whole life and who grew up on a farm, there are a lot of things about growing plants that I just assume everyone knows. But I realize that these things that I might know are things I’ve learned over the years and they’re not always common knowledge.
Thinning plants in the garden is one of those things. I learned from my mother about the need to thin plants in the vegetable garden and I saw the necessity for spacing plants in the fields each year. Without this background, I probably wouldn’t understand the need for thinning either.
Thinning is simply removing extra plants from a row in order to give the remaining plants room to grow and mature. With large seeded crops like peas, beans, squash and corn, you can usually space the seeds enough so that thinning isn’t needed. But with small seeds like beets, carrots, lettuce, radish and onions, it’s almost impossible to carefully space the seeds. Also, I find that some of these smaller seeds (carrots and beets in particular) can have spotty germination so I sow more seeds than is necessary in order to make sure that the row is filled with plants. I don’t worry about the seedlings being too crowded because I know I’ll thin them later.
Once the seeds have germinated and the plants are an inch or two tall, it’s time to thin. Every seed packet lists the amount of space between plants that’s needed for the crop to grow well and mature. This weekend I thinned the beets in the garden. The conditions were perfect for thinning – we’d had 2″ of rain during the week, the soil was moist and it was easy to pull the unwanted plants out of the ground. While beets ultimately need about 2-3″ between them to mature fully, I only thinned the plants to a little over an inch. In a few weeks I’ll pull out every other plant and use them for beet greens. Then the remaining plants will have the room they need to mature.
As I was thinning the beets, I realized that this can seem like a drastic thing to do. You plant seeds, they germinate and then you rip half of them out of the ground. But drastic or not, if you want plants to produce, thinning is something that you have to do in order to ensure a future harvest. In the world of vegetable gardening, more plants doesn’t necessarily mean more produce!