Thinning: A Crowd-Sourcing Project

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.

24 people are having a conversation about “Thinning: A Crowd-Sourcing Project

  1. As someone who transplanted an entire summer’s worth of infant tomatoes (successfully!) to avoid killing the thinned ones, I am uniquely unqualified to vote your radishes out of the hoop house.

  2. I solved the terrible dilemma of the slaughter of the innocents with regard to those with edible leaves, at least. I keep snipping off the tallest at ground level with scissors, and toss the leaves into a salad. The theory is that the roots left behind decay and feed the living infants. I should add that I grow my salad vegies in a metre high bed, so no crawling along the rows is required.

  3. Back when I had a garden I couldn’t thin either, so I transplanted the extra seedlings into peat pots and found any free spot to plant them or gave them to family and neighbors. Basil and tomato plants handled transplanting early on very well. Good luck. If it were me, I would keep 1, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, and plant the others in an egg carton and foist them on a neighbor.

  4. Row 1: Keep 4, 6, 8
    Row 2: Keep 11, 12, 14
    Row 3: Keep 16, 18

    Get yourself a handheld seed dial- it’ll make spacing seed out a lot easier. They’re only around five bucks or so.

  5. 3,6,9,and 10 and 19 go.
    I’m doing my tomato transplants this afternoon. And trying to save all of them even though I don’t need them. Will give them away.

  6. Snip 3, 6, 9, 11, 17, and 19. I am with you about this thinning thing. It’s a desperate ploy of these seedling companies to have us buy more. It makes me so skeptical. It’s either because of that or my extremely frugal Filipino upbringing.

  7. You are already doing better than me – your seeds are germinating. Anything from now on in is a bonus, do whatever you like 😉

  8. hahaha. well, i’d like to introduce another concept to you: spec work. we do all the work for you with no reward or little hope of a reward? pffffffffffffffffffffffffft.

  9. I plant into seedling trays.
    Then I plant out the best ones, and give the rest away.

    Regarding “Crowdsourcing”, JWZ calls this “Dear Lazyweb, …”

  10. Remove 3,6,9,10,18 and say thank you to them for sprouting.
    After that mass carnage, the rest will be big enough to eat when you need to thin more.

    I have picked out seedlings and moved them to sparse areas. Then again, I also let some plants go to seed so I have my own stock. Because of this practice, I have “crops” growing in odd places in and sortof near the garden.

    I am a chaos gardener.

  11. Chris Ester says:

    Have you considered that many of your seedlings are actually “micro greens” and so you could just consider it an early harvest?

  12. I thin seedlings like carrots and leeks when they’re small veggies and serve them as baby vegetables, and feel all fancy. Then it’s not “thinning”, it’s “harvesting baby veg”. As usual, it’s how you word it that makes the difference.

    If you don’t thin, you get smaller individual veg but a larger crop yield (usually). You open yourself up to fungal diseases which love overcrowding but, you also smother weeds. Block planting carrots and corn is a time-honoured method. I guess I’m going to straddle the fence like I always do.

    Also, while your crowd sourcing, please can you find an Amanda for me? I don’t even know what SEO means.

  13. @Jen:

    here comes the long boring part. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. its a fancy way of saying, “how findable are you on Google” (and other search engines, but really, who uses anything but google. How google creates the hierarchy of what sites show up when you search for something is based on a really complicated algorthym that changes every 7 minutes or so. At base, the recipes looks a bit like this:
    a. what keywords are established in your page (page, not entire site). keywords are those words used in your page with frequency, and where in the page they fall. you can also establish meta keywords for each post or page (meta meaning, hidden information you add to a page to help explain what it is).
    b. what people or sites send people to your site via links and what THEIR ranking or status is. For instance, if CNN sends people your way, its valued higher than your pal who blogs.
    c. how relevant those links and keywords are to the very exact search someone executes from Google.

    This is not just a science, but also an art. There are entire firms who do nothing but SEO for companies- its a huge money making business because how easily you’re found is frankly, essential. In some cases, it can makes millions of dollars of difference (there was a recent case involving JC Penny a few years back that showed that SEO over the holiday made a billion dollars’ difference).

    There are good and bad ways to do SEO. Bad is referred to as “black hat”, and is banned by google, but hey, there are always ways around that. Good SEO is generally regarded as just being smart about what you write, writing good content, rather than a lot of it- and making sure you add metadata, add descriptions to photos, etc.

    There’s TONS AND TONS of information out there on SEO, so plenty to read about.

    For Tamar’s site, its important because how easy it is to find a blog? Not very- so SEO helps… it also helps when Tamar’s readers tell other people about the site… whether its just telling a friend, posting to twitter or facebook (we have buttons to make that easier).

    Next week: how to correctly use your mouse:)

  14. I, too, am a thinning wimp! This is Sophie’s Choice!! I want all my babies to live!!!

    But, turning to the non-hormone fueled side of my brain, I like to thin in stages. I have had bugs, rampaging dogs, cats looking for a litter box, chickens, and, of course, my own feet, take out too many seedlings, so I thin the obvious ones, then come back when they get their first real leaves and thin again. My first thinning would take out 3, 6, 10 and 19. The next thinning would probably take 2, 7, 9, 13, 15 and 17, if everyone survives and is thriving. I always take damaged seedlings, even if it leaves gaps. And, if you do the thining in stages and lose a plant or two, you can try transplanting a seedling that you would take out anyway into the gap.

    Radish seedlings and young plants are delicious in salads, so don’t throw those thinnings away.

  15. The thinning — I mean, the harvesting of micro-greens — starts today! 3, 6, 9, 10, and 19 are the consensus, and out they go.

    I have to say, I was heartened to hear that other people have issues with thinning (i.e., per Franinoz, “slaughter of the innocents”). I floated the whole conspiracy thing as a joke (that’s how I float everything), but I’m beginning to think there’s something to it.

    Kingsley — “Dear Lazyweb” is now my official new problem-solving strategy.

    Jen — Everyone needs an Amanda. There aren’t enough of them to go around, though, so I guard mine jealously. And I will say, she’s much more entertaining that your average brain in a jar.

  16. This is so sad! I’ve always had such a hard time with it–I have to knock 2/3 of the peaches off of my little tree later this week. I think the general consensus was right on, though. Those had to go. Just found your blog. And I love it!

  17. I can’t stand the thought of thinning either; so I’ve experimented with planting to the distance recommended the seed pack – you, what you should thin to. Sure, some may not germinate, some may be anemic, but 90% of the time it’s fine. As for the ones that don’t make it…well, it’s usually early enough in the growing season to pop some seeds in to replace them. Besides, most good gardeners will tell you to stagger your planting to prevent a glut.

    Also, listen to Amanda, this site needs worldwide recognition! It’s brilliant!

    Brad from Australia

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