I know I’m not the only one who has trouble thinning seedlings.
In fact, I struggle with the whole philosophy of planting more seeds than you need just so you can snip the life out of two-thirds of them just as the little proto-plants stretch their legs. Is there a reason we can’t simply figure out how many plants we want, and plant that number of seeds plus a couple extra for insurance? That would undoubtedly be the best use of resources, and would get around the whole thinning problem.
As a rule, I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but it seems to me there’s no other explanation for the overseed-and-thin planting approach that permeates our gardening culture. Where do you find out that you’re supposed to plant three or four times the seeds you need, and thin them as seedlings? That’s right. On the seed packet.
Yeah, you see where this is going. Who is it who’s telling you to use three or four times the amount of their product than you would otherwise need? That’s right. It’s the seed companies.
So go ahead, plant four times the seeds you need. And, while you’re at it, lather, rinse, repeat.
I suspect some of you are going to come to this strategy’s defense, and tell me that you plant WAY too many seeds because some won’t sprout, and some will be anaemic. But, if that’s the reason, where are all the protests about seed companies selling us crappy, non-sprouting, anaemic little seeds? If that were the case, we’d never have enough grass on that knoll to … Oh, never mind.
I want desperately to have the courage of this particular conviction, and plant only as many seeds as I need. Instead, I spend some time being suspicious and resentful and end up assuming, not unreasonably, that I really don’t know very much about gardening and I’m better off taking the advice of people who know a lot about it, even if they are selling me three to four times the number of seeds I need.
So what I end up doing is a namby-pamby, split-the-difference kind of sowing, in which I plant more than I need, but not as much as the seed packets say. Which probably gets me the worst of all possible worlds, because I set myself up for whatever those problems are that seed companies are guarding against by telling you to overplant, yet I still have a thinning problem.
My friend Christl has tried to teach me about thinning. Christl grew up in Germany’s Black Forest during and just after the Second World War, when food was not plentiful and nobody had the luxury of being sentimental about things like seedlings. “Tamar,” she says, with her slight Teutonic accent, “You must be ruthless!”
Christl is a very small person and, because I am large, she comes up to a little past my elbow. But, watching the two of us deal with a row of radish seedlings, you know who’s tougher. I am convinced that a good part of the reason the plants in Christl’s garden grow big and healthy is that they’re simply afraid not to.
When Christl’s not around, Kevin tries to do her job. “Tamar,” he says, and I will admit he says it in his best approximation of both Christl’s fierceness and her accent, “You must be ruthless!”
But he knows it’s hopeless. The collard greens in the hoophouse are way too close together, and I can’t bring myself to uproot them now that they’re so leafy and green. The radishes have needed thinning for a couple of days now, and I keep putting it off. Kevin is now threatening to do it for me, and he has no trouble being ruthless.
My friend Amanda has floated what I think is an excellent solution to what I suspect is a near-universal problem: Neighbors should thin each other’s gardens. If they’re not your seedlings, you can determine the optimal density and simply start snipping. Nobody’s judgment gets clouded by romantic notions of seedling survival, and everybody’s garden flourishes.
I think this is a genius idea. The only problem is that my neighbor, Mike, has the kind of gardening skills that make you suspect he sold his soul to the devil for a lifetime of perfect vegetables. He knows how I garden, and he wouldn’t let me within ten feet of his seedlings.
Amanda, besides being my friend, is also my web designer and all-purpose tech consultant. When she’s not having genius ideas about gardening, she’s trying desperately to drag me out of my old-school print journalism shell and into the brave new world of online media. (She told me, for example, that if I worked an Octomom reference into my thinning post, it would be great for my SEO, which she is trying to get me to A) understand and B) work on.)
So Amanda will be pleased to know that it has not escaped even my old-media notice that the pressing problems of the day are being solved by a technique called crowd-sourcing. According to Wikipedia, crowd-sourcing is “a distributed problem-solving and production process that involves outsourcing tasks to a network of people.”
This sounds suspiciously like “post your problem on the Internet and let other people solve it,” which I think is an outstanding use of online media. Projects that have been crowd-sourced include transcribing the hard-to-read handwritten documents of Jeremy Bentham, finding lost people after Hurricane Katrina, and designing a new armored vehicle for the Department of Defense. Oh, and Wikipedia.
And I think thinning is the natural choice for the next pressing social problem to be solved by crowd-sourcing. I clearly have too much invested in the radish seedlings in my hoophouse to make rational decisions about which should live and which should go into tonight’s salad, so I am turning to you for help. Below are three pictures, each of about one foot of a three-foot row of radish seedlings. All the seedlings are numbered.
What I ask of you is that you submit a comment with the numbers of the seedlings you would take out. These are ordinary red radishes, so space appropriately. Vote off any that are too close together or look suspiciously anaemic, and I will do the deed. Either that, or I’ll ask Kevin to.
May the best solution win.