How to sepearate petunia seedlings??

kdog2568February 13, 2014

I have just recently sowed approximately 50 petunia seedlings and now that they are getting to a more manageable size I am wondering what would be the best way to separate them? I didn't sow them terribly thick, but they are still somewhat crowded and I want to do as little damage as possible to the root system when separating them. There are about 5 plants per 3 inch pot.

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Its hard to give you specific advise because you didn't say how big the seedlings are, nor how big the pots are.

I separate mine very early, as soon as they have a set or two of true leaves. They are small, but the roots haven't grown much either, which means they are not tangled together.

I usually start mine in little 3 or 5 oz plastic cups, so it is easy to just slide the whole dirt mass out of the cup , lay it on its side and gently tease it apart. Each seedling then goes into its own small cup until it is large enough that it needs to be potted up to a bigger size.

Petunias are pretty hardy, just be as gentle as you can and I am sure they will do fine.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2014 at 7:04AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

get a squirt bottle ... fill with water ...

have the new pots/containers all set to go ... and a nice pile of damp media ... i might suggest 6 oz solo cups with slices out of the bottom edge ... everything sterilized.. IMHO ...

tip out one cell ... gently massage it to get the old media off it ... use the spray bottle to encourage such ... separate each plant.. and immediately replant ...

then start breathing again .. lol ...

it is said.. such will stimulate a survival response.. a release of growth hormones... and believe it or not.. its done all the time ...

just dont take phone calls.. decide to go out to lunch..etc.. and leave them laying around.. once you take them from the soil ...

finally ... if possible.. tent them for a few days.. to increase humidity on the leaves... so they stay moist.. while the roots get pumping again ...

no one said.. it has to all be done in one day ... do a few ... tent them in a gallon bag.. and come back in a few days.. and do a few more .. by the time you are done.. you will be an expert ...and/or.. wondering what you were thinking when you decided you needed 50 .. lol ...

just do it ... and yes.. perhaps a few will die.. so be it.. they were weaklings anyway .. lol.. thats my justification ... lol


EDIT: BTW... i would do it.. at the first true leaf stage ... all very small and delicate.. but avoids the nightmare of an impossible to untangle root mass ... if you are at that point.. and after trying a cell or two .. if its just too much work.. default to simply cutting out a few of the plants... leaving two at most ... in each cell ...

This post was edited by ken_adrian on Fri, Feb 14, 14 at 11:14

    Bookmark   February 14, 2014 at 8:36AM
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Here is a pic of the plants, sorry I meant to include that earlier but couldn't get it to upload. Maybe these are a little bigger than seedlings so sorry for the confusion. Would it still be possible to separate or are the roots too tangled by now? Have more seed but would really like to keep these from being crowded with as little "killing off" as possible.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2014 at 10:13AM
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Just do as Ken suggested - you are bound to break a few roots, and it may slow them down, but I suspect they will survive just fine. The sooner you separate them the better.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2014 at 11:36AM
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SouthCountryGuy Zone 4b-5 SE BC(Zone 4b-5 SE BC Canada)

Kens and mandolls methods are sound. Another method I use when dealing with particularly stubborn tangled roots is to immerse the seedlings in a pail of water and untangling them there.

Good luck :)

    Bookmark   February 15, 2014 at 2:01PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

perfect size.. do one pot ... and if you are too stressed... do more tomorrow ...

i see some salt buildup at 9 o'clock... i think.. if so.. all new media ...

and the cracking in your media.. indicates to me.. that you could probably find a better.. more friable media ... something a little more chunkier ... bigger particles ...

yours has.. what i would call 'too much peat' ... which was fine for this purpose.. but you can do better for the seedling stage ....

next time.. try to scatter the seeds a bit more.. to make the job easier ...

just do it.. its not that big a deal ....

be sure to dampen your media first ... this old media.. goes out into the garden .. no recycling.. in my world.. warped as it may be ...

take the new pot .... tip on side.. add 50% of the peat on one side, the bottom .. stage plant in center.. and holding the media and the plant .... fill the other half with media... put hand over pot.. and slam onto table gently .. to get media to settle.. set aside and repeat until done ... if it sinks.. the first time you water it.. you didnt slam it hard enough .... repot it to proper level ...

if it were me.. i would get a dollar store alum turkey pan.. and fill it with media.. and wet it all ... and use that as your work station ... covering it and setting it aside.. until you need it at the next stage ....

let us see your result .... and good luck


ps: its fun to work in media in winter.. but peat based products will severely dry out your hands... so you might want to were some gloves if you have delicate skin ... its basically acidic .... [is that a pun???] ... it took me years.. to figure why all my cuticles cracked this time of year .... then i realized it was always a week after a major repotting project .... go figure ...

    Bookmark   February 15, 2014 at 2:37PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

I have always germinated my seeds in a plastic flat, the kind that the plastic cell packs come in. I sow them thickly in straight rows, several different varieties or colors of the same variety, with a labeled marker separating them from each other. How many seeds per flat depends upon the size of the seeds but anywhere from 2-3 hundred.

This is how we were taught in college, how it was done in the large greenhouse ranges we visited, and the greenhouses in which I worked! I adopted that method to my own home, where instead of growing hundreds of thousands of plants in a season, I'm happy with a few hundred! I only use two flats for my germination needs....which means that that's all I have to heat. Two seedling flats will be transplanted into around thirty plant filled trays.

The reason I've gone into all of this is to dispel the myth that seedlings are incredibly fragile.....doomed to a high percentage of loss during the transplanting from tiny seedling to larger cell pack.

If grown properly with high light and cool ambient temperature, in a light and loose soilless medium, and transplanted early early seedlings will separate very easily without ripping any roots.

I'll prepare my cell packs ahead of time, filling with a coarser soilless mix than I'll use for germination and water thoroughly. The holes need to be pre-drilled in advance, too. I use a sharpened pencil to replace the automated dibblers (hole punchers) used in the greenhouses. I prefer to use larger cells, somewhere in the three inch range (18 to 24 plants per filled liner tray). It takes me not much more than an hour to do the transplanting, including the watering in with a fogging nozzle.

After a few weeks in the cell packs, they'll be ready to transplant into the flower beds or my larger patio containers. Again, there shouldn't be any 'transplant shock ' at all or plant loss throughout the whole process. My only losses are due to my carelessly breaking a stem while inserting a seedling into the cell pack, maybe one out of fifty.

I won't use those germination mixes that so many use.....they are simply too fine-textured. Roots WILL tangle together in that kind of medium. By the way, allowing the medium to dry out a bit can be extremely helpful.

The less handling the better! No 'messaging ' of the roots, please! Don't even attempt to remove the other medium from the root mass, the excess will fall off with a little tap as long as it's not soaking wet. And I would not spray the roots with water.

In the future, I strongly suggest that you buy pelletized petunia seeds. Your seedlings appear to be a bit large but it's a bit hard to tell for sure.

To facilitate easier distribution of teensy seed, mix them with corn meal or grits.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2014 at 2:56PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Ken, I'll add this comment on behalf of your poor hands! There's no reason why you should be handling wet stuff during any of the this process. I scratched my head over that one.

Your medium should be nearly dry when you fill the pots, cups, flats, cell packs, or whatever. Then, it should be watered gently to soak the volume of medium in your container....with a mist or fog nozzle. The very last thing one should do is manhandle the mix, which will smush the oxygen right out of it.

Both seeds and seedlings should be settled in with water, not your fingers. That's also true when transplanting directly into the garden. The soil should be on the dry side for planting, and the plant can be gently firmed in place without a lot of tamping. A good watering will secure the plant into the soil, again without compacting the pore spaces.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2014 at 9:26PM
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Thank you all for the advice I really am happy to get some input on these guys as I LOVE petunias. Ken I certainly will be scattering more carefully next time as that seems to be the key in making things easier from the get go. No worries on the soil though, I don't think there is salt build up I have just let the media dry out a good deal because as you stated this is a peat based media. I wont mention the name of the product but I don't normally go for this overhyped brand however I am in college right now and my budget hasn't allowed me to purchase my normal quality mix. When they are transplanted however they will be in my tried and true soil, unfortunately just had to settle for the moment so I could get the babies going :)

    Bookmark   February 16, 2014 at 10:52AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

darn.. been doing it wrong for 2 decades ...

guess all that success was actually not so ...

i found it nearly impossible to properly wet media in my house ...

but i did work in a greenhouse once.. and they did it rhiz way ..

whatever works.. works.. period


ps: when i did it rhiz way.. and the plant died.. i later found big patches of completely dry media where the plants roots were ... though.. perhaps i was using the wrong media in the way back machine???? .. and maybe the difference is in using a watering can versus using a hose to pot drench plants on a propagation table ... so it seems we are back to waiting for OP to ask what the proper media would be ....

    Bookmark   February 16, 2014 at 10:54AM
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Proper media? I'm more of
the opinion of just what ken said, whatever works works lol. No doubt there are preferred methods and medias but I have had success with a range of soil types and methods and it really seems to just boil down to some methods being easier and saving time in the future. Really as long as the plant gets to where you want it to be, it doesn't seem to make too much of a difference as to how you got it there.

PS: I personally wet all my media before transplanting just because its easier for me and has yielded success thus far.

    Bookmark   February 16, 2014 at 11:30AM
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runswithscissors(MT 4/5)

Not to high-jack the thread, but this sort of relates.... I tried the new thing on the market this year....Petunia Fuseables. (It's pelleted seeds with two different colored petunias in the same pellet.) You just plant it and allow them to grow together. Kdog's picture is exactly how the seedlings sprout. So, do you separate them or leave them to grow as a "Fuseable"? I know many people say "Oh you have to separate them or they will weaken each other." But is that necessarily true? Hmmm, we'll see what happens.

I just wanted to try them, but in the future I'm going back to the old way and just grow two different colored petunias. It's just as easy to plant them together when I do up my patio containers.

    Bookmark   February 16, 2014 at 2:21PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Ken....don't be so sensitive. I never said that your way is "wrong ". I've always defended everyone's right to accomplish whatever they are doing in whatever way they want to. I think that goes for me, too, right?

I was just trying to save your delicate hands. :-)

RWS, I've scratched my head over those fused seeds. Let us know how you liked them.

Proper medium : one that is light, porous, drains quickly, etc. You can buy such media already made if you look hard enough; there are several good brands and some of us have our tried and true favorites. I've been using my favorite stuff for twenty or thirty years. It is also possible to create a good medium or even amend a crappy one to greatly improve it. I've done that, too.

After seeds have germinated, the seedlings can be susceptible to assorted damping off entirely avoidable problem. A "proper medium " does much to prevent these issues.

A good planting mix will ensure a large, strong root system....which means bigger, vigorous plants requiring less frequent waterings.

    Bookmark   February 16, 2014 at 5:00PM
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Yep, just a little crowded. I think the recommended final size for containers is about 3 plants for 10 to 12-inches of container size.

Since they were probably sown very shallowly, separating them should be fairly easy, but you need to wait until they are strong enough to do it. If they just have the first two leaves, those are the 'seed' leaves and their roots are not well enough established to survive transplanting. Wait until they have at least 2 and better with 4 'true' leaves before transplanting. Carefully loosen the soil well around each one you want to move and try not to disturb the soil much around the others, and move as much soil with the root as possible. You might want to try feeding them a week or so before you transplant them, or feed them well while you're watering them back in in their new home. Good luck!

If you scroll down on the link, there's some really good information on germinating and growing petunias.

Here is a link that might be useful: Growing Petunias

    Bookmark   February 17, 2014 at 11:05AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

I wonder if those Baby Duck petunias are REALLY that lovely color, or a fakey, color enhanced photo? Has anyone grown this particular cultivar? It's so pretty.

    Bookmark   February 17, 2014 at 4:37PM
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I have seen other pics of the Baby Duck petunias that are close to that one - I bought some seeds myself this year to try them.

    Bookmark   February 17, 2014 at 5:01PM
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Just separated a few today and did damage the roots just a wee bit but they don't appear to have suffered too much and look much better spaced out!

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 6:48PM
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I too moisten my soil before I plant anything--seeds or transplants. I find that putting dry soil in pots and watering later leads to dry spots in the soil. I fail to see the reasoning behind watering later. The water will compact the soil as much as planting with moist soil. I have done it both ways and I prefer my way. Then that's the difference in gardening and gardeners. There is no wrong way if any process produces the desirable results. Just the way that the gardener prefers..

I soak the soil off any plants that are too intertwined. That way I damage the roots less than trying to tear them apart

    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 5:49AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Kdog, good deal! You'll know what to do next time. Just remember, if you transplant seedlings early enough, there needn't be any ripping of the roots,....the seedlings will come apart very easily, especially if the mix is on the dry side.

If they are past that time frame, soaking can help or even 'surgery'. Sharply severed roots are able to regenerate much faster than those that have been ripped, shredded, or smushed.

Helpful hint about those pesky hydrophobic potting mixes: dampen it before using it. Damp does not mean sopping wet. Put the medium in a large container of some kind, spray some water, stir it up. I'll use a wheelbarrow for a bigger job, or just a five gallon bucket. Keep doing that until the stuff is uniformly damp. "Slightly damp ", as Ken said is just the right term. If you still have dry pockets, you ain't doing it right, lol. Even dusty peat moss can be made usable that way.

Of course, after filling the containers they should be watered gently to settle and distribute the slightly dampened medium. That's before planting.

A soilless medium won't compact if you use a rain nozzle (or the fogging nozzle for seedlings) on the hose. My usual watering nozzle distributes water like a rain shower. For seeds and just transplanted seedlings, I use the misting nozzle which will not disturb even surface sown seeds.

There is one primary reason why it is S.O.P. to water after planting. It's a seriously important step after the sowing of seeds and planting a tree....and everything in between. That reason is to settle the soil or the potting mix around the root system. There is no other way to accomplish that job. It's one of the few tasks in the wide world of horticulture that is a standard rule.

It's not even to provide water to the plant....just to settle the soil or medium around the roots or the seed. The surface areas need to be surrounded by the soil.

So! Water a newly filled container to distribute the medium. Then water again after planting to tuck in the roots properly.

    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 12:57PM
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Rhizo 1--what makes your way right and everyone else's wrong. I always thought that gardeners do what works for them. Your way may be fine for you but it wouldn't work for me and apparently Ken. I've grown thousands of plants and have never " tucked in the roots" and have lost very few plants. With as much water as you recommend my plants would be water logged.

You do what works for you but let others do what works for them. There is more than 1 way to skin a cat and more than 1 way to be a successful gardener

    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 3:14PM
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Just poke your index finger down into the soil beside the clump of seedlings and lift up the root balls out of the potting media and gently pull the plants apart by grasping the basal leaves. The roots should separate just fine if your potting media isn't stone dry. Never pull a plant up by a leaf out of the soil or you will lose the roots more often than not.

I have found that if the soil is soggy wet in the cells when you try to remove the rooted plant, the weight of the soil often will cause some or all of the roots to tear off. The key is a gently moist, light, and friable soil mass any time you work with rooted plants. I transplant into light, slightly but evenly moistened soil and then water in well after the transplant so the roots make excellent contact with the soil. If you start out with the light, airy soil, even after good watering the tiny air pockets providing aeration will be conserved. If you plant into soggy soil they will not be.........the same principle as planting in your outdoor garden. You do not want compaction. I really don't care how anyone does it if they're satisfied with the results, but do recommend the way rhizo suggests. I have transplanted thousands of petunias each spring for a quarter of a century and found that method to be one most recommended. Somebody asked about Baby Ducks? I did a run of them one year and they were darling, but found that they did not have good enough garden performance after the initial bloom in their pots. They were fast sells for impulse buys in the pots but I wasn't impressed with them the rest of the summer.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 8:59PM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

I thought Rhizo did a very nice job explaining his way, but agreeing that there are many other ways to skin a cat. It sounds as if Rhizo does have lots of experience and I think only has others best interests in mind. We all want everyone to succeed and enjoy their gardens.


    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 2:44PM
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Rhizo is a she and an horticultural educator. We're rather fortunate that she is so generous with sharing her expertise.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 7:17PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Thanks, Calliope and Martha! I know that I missed the mark on this one. Makes me wish that we had "Touch-O-Vision ", lol.

I'm all for no ripping of roots, no smushing of potting medium, no transplant shock (EVER), no damping off diseases, no fungus gnats.....all the while growing seedlings with sturdy stems, well developed root systems, and market quality plants (often in full bloom in the cell pack) to plant in my yard.

There are plenty of ways to achieve these goals. I like mine because it has so few steps and a near hundred percent success rate from seed to garden. No worries, no stress, no fears. Other methods can be successful, too.

It's all about having fun, success, and that feeling of simple satisfaction we get from producing beautiful plants from seed. It's a simple and pure pleasure.

This post was edited by rhizo_1 on Mon, Mar 24, 14 at 6:19

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 6:12AM
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