Although I will certainly lose some of my street cred as an urban homesteader by revealing that I do not start all my edibles from seed, this info is important stuff for the newer gardeners among us. As a beginner veggie grower I assumed each cell in a 6 pack held one plant and should be plunked right into the dirt. My friend Claire Woods, who also happens to be a propagator at the beloved Annie’s Annuals Nursery and an all around expert plant lady, set me straight on this situation.
In fact, each of these cells holds about 10 viable kale plants.
If you put each cell right into the ground you’ll end up with 10 big plants trying to grow in 1 square inch of dirt- no good! The trick is to tease each seedling apart so they can be planted at a proper distance from one another and mature to normal size. I usually start by pulling out a cell and tapping the side against my palm to loosen the dirt and roots. In cells that are as congested as these, it is then usually necessary to make one drastic tear down the middle to get the untangling process started.
After that, with more gentle tapping, shaking and teasing apart, you can pull out each individual seedling. Go slow and be gentle! Doing this with bare hands helps a lot. I was trying to keep my hands clean to take pictures, so I have gloves on here. Some seedlings will end up without enough roots to support themselves- compost those guys.
Just be sure to pick starts that are not too old or the roots will be so tangled you won’t be able to separate them. These kale starts are about as tangled as I can handle. If you don’t have any choice and are facing a complete snarl of roots, just snip off all but one of the babies at soil level, gently loosen the outside of the snarl and plant. Plants like kale, broccoli and cabbage can be planted deeper than they were in the cells to help support those reachy little stems. I usually put them in so the soil level is just below the cluster of leaves.
This process is terribly satisfying. After a good amount of culling, I ended up with 50 kale plants from this particular 6 pack. Pretty good for a few dollars worth of starts. Doing this also makes me feel far less guilty about not having started my own seeds at the right time. Next year all will be on time and my garden will be perfect! Next year!
A word of caution: don’t do this to baby plants with roots that hate to be disturbed, like melons and squash. They will struggle and pout.