Category Archives: Garden Advice

“Spotting On” or “Pricking Out”: How to Pot Up Tiny Seedlings to Save Time & Money

“Spotting On” or “Pricking Out” refers to separating and potting up tiny just-emerged seedlings. You can use this technique to germinate a lot of seed in a small container. That’s useful when you have older seed or home-saved seed that you’re not sure will germinate well. You’ll be able to maximize space in your best seed-germinating set-ups (like heat mats or germination tanks). Transplanting tiny seedlings also saves the heartache of thinning.

1. Handle tiny plants by the roots or leaves. The stems are irreplaceable and easily crushed, killing the plants. Roots and leaves can easily re-grow!

2. Spot on when the plants are still tiny, as soon as the cotyledons (seedling leaves) have spread out and turned green, or before. You will probably find the plants are at a mix of stages — there may be some seeds just below the surface that are just barely sprouted. These can be potted up as well!

3. Carefully remove small sections of plants and gently tease apart the roots. I like to use the tip of a hori-hori to dislodge the plants.

4. Have the new pots or flats ready to go, with the potting soil appropriately moist. Once you start separating seedlings, the roots can quickly dry out, so plan to move any plants that will be exposed.

5. Push aside the soil with a popsicle stick or similar tool to make a hole. Holding the plants by a leaf, place in the hole. Try to keep the root pointing downwards.

6. Press down on the soil around the base of the plant to ensure good soil contact (this prevents drying). Gently water straightaway. If transplanting into a flat, you should water the whole flat again when it’s full.

Ta-da! You can save dozens or hundreds of plants by using this method rather than traditional thinning! Give your extra seedlings to friends, donate them to community gardens, or dig yourself extra garden space and plan to preserve the bounty of your garden!

DIY Compost Tea

In our last post we discussed the importance of soil tests and what nutrients plants require to thrive. There are numerous ways to improve your soil but may of them take quite a bit of time. Like the rest of gardening, using organic methods like cover cropping and mulching to build healthy soil requires patience. Sometimes you’ll need to quickly get nutrients to your plants. A great simple and affordable way to give your plants a boost is to water them with compost or manure tea.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 5 gallon or other large bucket
  • compost, manure, or grass clippings
  • water
  • optional: egg or oyster shells

To get started fill your bucket about 1/4 full with compost, manure, or grass clippings. Using any of these will provide your plants with nitrogen. Then if you’ve decided to use shells (this is where a soil test is handy) add about 1/2 cup to your bucket before filling it the rest of the way with water.

Store the mixture well to ensure all your ingredients are well mixed and not just floating in the water. Then allow it to steep for 2 days, giving it an occasional stir once or twice a day.

You can then water plants with it. For plants in the garden, water around the base with about 2 cups per plant. For seedlings or potted plants add about 1/2 cup compost tea to a gallon of water. If they were showing signs of a nitrogen deficiency you should see an improvement in just a couple of days!

You can also use this as a foliar spray but be sure to dilute it first! Use about 10 parts water to 1 part tea.

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Understanding Soil Tests

If you’ve never had your soil tested you may want to consider it. While soil tests may seem like something more suited to commercial growers than backyard gardeners they’re actually quite simple and affordable. In fact some local extension agencies and/or state colleges offer this service for free. While you can purchase at home soil tests generally having it professionally done is a good place to start. 

Here’s what you can expect from a soil a test and what it will mean for your garden. 


Primary Nutrients

The following three nutrients are considered the primary nutrients and the probably the most discussed by gardeners.

  • Nitrogen 
  • Phosphorus 
  • Potassium 

Nitrogen is important for plant’s vegetative growth. Phosphorus helps in root and flower development. Potassium promotes vigor. These are found in a variety of commercial fertilizers and homemade garden amendments.

Secondary Nutrients

  • Sulfur 
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium

Calcium helps plants build strong cell walls, magnesium is an important part of chlorophyll, and sulfur is important for the growth of roots and seeds. Just like primary nutrients these secondary nutrients can be purchased in commercial amendments or you can make homemade ones.

Micronutrients/Trace Minerals

Some soil tests will give you the option of testing for micronutrients or trace minerals. These are minerals that plants need in very small amounts. 

  • Boron 
  • Chlorine
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Molybdenum
  • Zinc

Unless you suspect a problem testing for these is probably unnecessary. Most soils have enough to keep plants healthy and deficiencies in these minerals aren’t caused by their lack of presence in the soil rather an inability for plants to take up the nutrient because of other problems such as drought stress or incorrect pH. 

These minerals are also typically present in large enough quantities for gardens in any organic fertilizer or other amendments even simple, good quality compost. 

Soil pH Level

Another important part of your soil test is your soil’s pH. pH is the measure of how acidic or alkaline your soil is. It’s an important feature on your soil test as it affects soil nutrient availability and microbe activity. This means that even if a nutrient is in your soil it may still be unavailable to plants do to your soil’s pH.

It’s also worth noting that some crops like blueberries and potatoes prefer more acidic soil than others. 

Amending Your Soil

Once you get your results you can amend your soil as needed. There are a variety of products available commercially or you can use homemade garden amendments like compost and compost tea, manure, coffee grounds, egg shells, pine needles and more. 

You may be able to get personalized recommendations from your local extension agency or soil testing service.

When adding any garden amendment it’s important to thoroughly research its effects on your garden. Certain amendments like oyster shells for calcium can affect your soil’s pH and may affect the availability of other important nutrients. You also want to avoid adding too much of anything to your garden as this can be just as bad as too little. Excess nutrients can also run off into streams and other water bodies causing toxic algae blooms.

11 Free Organic Methods to Add Nutrients to Your Garden


If you start your own transplants at home don’t forget about the nutrients they need. Buying or mixing a good quality potting mix is important to their success. One of my favorite ways to give seedlings a quick boost is to add a bit of compost tea or liquid kelp to their water. I typically use about 5 TBS per gallon of water. 

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