In the Garden:
Middle South
May, 2001
Regional Report

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It pains me to do it, but unless my sunflowers are thinned, they won't be able to fulfill their colorful destiny.

Thoughtful Thinning

I love the magic and mystery of growing flowers and vegetables from seed--until it's time to thin. After waiting for my babies to emerge, I grit my teeth as I sentence half of them to the compost pile. But it must be done, because no plants will grow healthy and strong without adequate spacing. For me, the only thing that makes thinning bearable is going about it thoughtfully, with the best possible outcome in mind.

Create Space

Recommended spacing between plants is usually given on seed packets, but I like to thin gradually rather than all at once. That way, if pests such as rabbits or cutworms stage an attack, I won't be left with big holes in the row. My rule of thumb is whenever leaves of adjoining plants touch, they're too close for comfort. This usually means that I must thin two or three times as plants grow instead of once. A bonus is that after the first thinning, plants are far enough apart that I can lift out the extras and transplant them to other parts of my garden.

Reducing Thinning Trauma

Plant roots are always traumatized as neighboring plants are pulled out, but I try to lessen the impact of thinning on the plants left behind. Watering the day before I thin helps roots slip easily from the soil when I pull the stem. Because I usually thin and pull weeds at the same time, I often go back and cultivate lightly around the thinned plants, filling in gaps or cracks left in the soil.

Thinning for Diversity

With flower packets of mixed colors, it's important to thin seedlings of differing sizes rather than thinning just the biggest or weakest plants. Color variations often are reflected in the size and vigor of the seedlings. I have seen this many times with cosmos, mixed sunflowers, and zinnias. A certain color in the mix may be more or less vigorous than others. To ensure a mix of colored flowers, thin a diversity of seedlings.


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