You’ve sown some seeds and they’ve geminated.  You’ve got plenty of fresh green seedlings growing strongly but what next?  When do you separate them from their friends and how do you do it?  This short article answers these questions – explaining how to prick out your seedlings to grow them on strongly.

Why do you need to prick out seedlings?

Unless you’ve sown your seeds one to a pot you will need to prick out your seedlings.  Left jostled together in a seed tray they will compete for light, water and nutrients.  Their roots will hit the bottom of the tray and will outgrow the space available to them and they will begin to struggle.

Damping off is a fungal disease which strikes seedlings growing close together in a seed tray.  The signs are pretty dramatic – your once healthy-looking seedlings start to topple over and curl up.  It’s not a pretty sight but is easily avoided by giving them better air circulation and space in new pots.

How do you prick out seedlings?

How to prick out seedlings

I usually use a pricking out tool which is a purpose made spatula-shaped plastic tool, a bit like a tiny narrow spade.  Sets usually come with a mini dibber too to make holes in the compost in which to pop your seedling into.  I don’t usually bother with the dibber as unless you make all the the dibber holes in advance, it means picking up and putting down two tools.  I just use the pricking out tool to make a hole in the compost.

You do not need a tool like this at all though and a pencil will do the job just fine.

This little you tube clip shows me pricking out a tray of marigold seedlings and shows how to use the tool or a pencil to do this. Apologies for the lack of finesse in my appearance – self-isolation due to Covid-19 has kept me from the hairdresser!

If you’d like to read a description of how to do this, a step-by-set guide is also set out below.


A step-by-step guide

  1. Choose the pots or modules to prick your seedlings into.  To minimise the amount of compost you will use, smaller plants could be sown two to a pot or module.  Large plants or those that will be in a pot for a while before planting out can be sown one to a pot or module
  2. Fill the pots or modules with good quality compost (I always use peat free compost) and pat the compost down.
  3. Take your pricking out tool or pencil in your dominant hand and gently pinch a leaf between the thumb and forefinger of your non dominant hand.
  4. Dig the pricking out tool or pencil deep into the compost under where the roots of the seedling will be.  Lift up the compost whilst pulling very gently on the leaf of the seedling.  Keep disturbing the compost under the roots until you feel the seedling come away.
  5. Still holding the leaf, lift the seedling towards your module and make a hole in the compost big enough to accommodate the rootball.  Put the seedling in the hole and firm the compost round it gently with your tool or pencil.
  6. Repeat for all your seedlings and water them in.  Try to use a watering can with a rose on it but even then the seedlings can get knocked over by the water flow.  If this happens, prop the seedling upright with your fingers and firm in again.
  7. Make sure you label every set of modules or each individual pot/group of pots.  If you’ve sown them indoors take them outside on good days to get them gradually used to outdoor temperatures but move them indoors if frost is forecast.  The back of the seed packet usually gives good information on planting out times.

Pictures of me pricking out marigold seedlings

How to prick out seedlings

Grab a leaf between thumb and forefinger and carefully dig below the roots whilst gently lifting up the leaf.

How to prick out seedlings

Release you seedling, roots and all and whilst still holding the leaf, move it over to your new pot.

How to prick out seedlings

Make a hole in the compost of your pot or module, making sure it is big enough to accommodate the rootball of your seedling.

Place the roots of the seedling in the hole.

How to prick out seedlings

Gently firm the compost around the stem of the seedling, tucking it in securely.

How to prick out seedlings

Water your seedlings in, propping up and firming in again any that get knocked over by the water flow. Label.

Growing from seed is a rewarding and cost-effective way to fill your garden.  Many more varieties of flower and veg are available from seed than as ready grown plants.  Master this and you’ll have superb choice at minimal cost.

For information on seed sowing and how to decipher the back of a seed packet click here.


I’ve also written guides on growing various veg and flowers in the UK.  Click the links below.

Self-isolators guide to quick-growing veg

Growing Tomatoes outdoors in the UK

How to grow Kale

How to grow squash and pumpkins

How to grow rhubarb

The best sweet pea varieties