If you're new to gardening you may have suddenly found yourself with a number of seed trays all full of bright seedlings! Then what to do next? Once seedlings reach a certain height they will need transplanting. How do you get these baby plants into their own pots? What's the best way? Well, this guide on how to prick out and pot on seedlings is for you.

Now that your seeds have germinated you may suddenly struggle to work out what to do next. Well, the next stage in growing your own plants is what’s known in the biz as ‘Pricking out’. This is a term used to describe separating your seedlings and potting them on into their own individual containers. It’s a relatively straightforward and fun activity. However, there’s some tips and tricks you will need to ensure you don’t accidentally butcher your seedlings! It’s time to start pricking out seedlings!

Tools for potting on seedlings

  • Dibber or pencil
  • New pots for transplanting (Plastic Free is possible!)
  • Multipurpose potting compost
  • Labels
  • Watering can

Watering seed trays first

The first thing you need to do is water your seed trays before you start any potting on. I use a fine rose on a small watering and give them a good soak. This has two benefits.

  1. It will make it far easier to split the seedlings without damaging them. Lubrication is definitely a benefit!
  2. It reduces stress on the plant as it will be going from a well-rooted moist environment to a new pot. Watering it reduces stress as it had a good drink before the journey

Plant Pots for potting on

I always prepare my pots first even before lifting the seedlings. If you don’t you’re going to find yourself in a rush to get the seedlings in. In the process of the panic no doubt knocking things over and causing a right banana drama in your greenhouse or kitchen. Aint nobody got time for that!

I always use a good multi-purpose compost as the seedlings are now in their ‘growth phase’ so need plenty of moisture and nutrients to do their thing. I also use a tamper to make sure there are no air pockets and the surface is level. Don’t fill to the very brim as this makes for messy watering as soil spills out. Leave compost 1cm below the rim of your chosen pots. (There’s more on the pot choices below).

Good compost is essential for potting on, never reuse compost it introduces disease and lacks nutrients.

Use your dibber or pencil to create a hole in which your seedling can be placed. You’re now ready to remove the seedlings, the exciting bit!

Removing seedlings from trays

Now using a dibber you want to carefully lift and separate your seedlings from the seed tray or pot. There’s no exact art to this. Some people find their own method. I tend to place the dibber into a seed-free section of the tray then carefully pivot it to push a cluster of seedlings up from the bottom.

Then when you have that cluster you can use the dibber to carefully separate the roots. The dibber also doubles up as your ‘hole creator’ in your new pots to drop the seedlings into.

Dibber in action

Never hold seedlings by the stem

The stem is the vital highway for water and food in your seedling. If you pick it up by the delicate soft fleshy stem the chances are you’re going to crush it. A bit like being picked up by your throat! Always pick up seedlings by their leaves. They can grow more of these are damaged. However, if the stem is damaged, the plant will die.

Always hold by the leaves never the stem when pricking out seedlings

Dropping and firming in your seedlings

With your prepared pots, the next stage is to drop in the seedling and roots into the hole. Only bury it as deep as it was in the seed tray. If you over bury the stem chances are it will rot. So you’re aiming to cover the roots and that’s enough. Then using the dibber or a finger carefully firm the soil in lightly around the seedlings. I then water the pot straight away. I find watering it causes a vacuum that also pulls the seedling firmer into the compost securing it.

Don’t forget to label your seedlings so you know which plants are which. It may sound obvious but in a greenhouse full of seedlings trying to identify them can become a right headache!

A tray of potted on seedlings, labelled and ready to grow on!

Pot choices for Pricking Out Seedlings

You may have seen that I’m Gardening without plastic this year at Garden Ninja HQ. If you want to read more about why this is a good thing then there is a whole series of Plastic Free Gardening guides here. Seedlings don’t require huge pots as a general rule (maybe sunflowers the exception). I tend to choose 9-11cm pots for potting on. Below are a few examples with a summary of each. It’s a personal preference depending on budget and space.

Terracotta Pots

Terracotta is breathable, long lasting and looks lovely. Instagram worthy and they stack inside each other when not in use. They are expensive and bulky for seedlings though and if you drop them..well. Smash.

Cardboard Pots

These too are breathable and really light weight. They can be squashed together relatively efficiently to maximise space. They are not reusable and can become soggy if over watered so place them on a tray for rigidity purposes. However, you can plant them directly in the ground reducing root disturbance.

Newspaper seed pots

These are cheap cheerful and the ultimate in recycling. You can buy a jig online which helps you make them easily. If not a rolling pin (without handles) can help to wrap slips of newspaper round and then fold the bottoms under once you have slid them off (the jig is far easier though). Drawbacks are they don’t last long so only use for 4-6 weeks. Again use a tray so they hold their shape longer. You can plant these straight out. I like to use these when I’m pricking out seedlings for grow your own vegetables as they break down so quickly in the ground.

Paper pots are cheap and easy to make; especially with the jig on the right

Toilet Roll Pots

Toilet roll pots are a great way to recycle and make excellent seedling pots. Especially for deep rooting seedlings like Peas. I fold over the ends to create the base. The drawback is they have a limited diameter for broader seedlings and can be unstable to stand up. I always use a tray for these.

So there we have it a speedy no fuss guide to pricking out seedlings and potting on (and not a plastic pot in sight). Once you’ve potted on your seedlings you will need to keep them watered. They should establish relatively quickly before you can harden them off in a cold frame and then plant them out!

I’d love to hear back from you on your grow your own journey! How have your seedlings been getting on? Why not get in touch on Social media? You can TweetFacebook or Instagram me. You can also check out the other guides and vlogs on my Youtube channel.

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