Thinning your seedlings is a necessary evil.
On the one hand, thinning helps produce greater yields in the garden, since overcrowded seedlings compete for sun, nutrients, and moisture. When they lack adequate space to develop roots, they can become stunted and unproductive. They’re also more susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases if there’s not enough air circulation between plants.
On the other hand, thinning can be tedious work if (like me) you tend to sprinkle your seeds pretty liberally in the soil and are faced with hundreds of seedlings to thin every season.
The one saving grace that makes this task bearable is treating those thinnings as an early harvest of your crop — and that includes greens you normally wouldn’t think to eat, such as carrot tops, cucumber greens, and zucchini sprouts, as well as “fancy” greens you’ve likely seen in a supermarket, such as sunflower sprouts, daikon sprouts, and broccoli sprouts.
All of these seedlings (known in culinary terms as sprouts, shoots, and microgreens) are fully edible and highly nutritious versions of your favorite vegetables. When you thin them, don’t toss them!
The seedlings are delicious in salads and sandwiches, or as toppings for pizzas and omelets. (A microgreen salad, dressed in a simple vinaigrette and scattered over those meals once they come off the heat, is my favorite way to spruce up a one-pan dish.)
Generally, you should start to thin seedlings when they’re 1 to 3 inches in height. Sometimes I’ll wait a little longer with root vegetables, like beets and radishes, as I like the more substantial greens. (If you’re the same, simply harvest the seedlings once they have a few sets of true leaves.)
Depending on how crowded your seedlings are, you could pull them out (taking care not to disturb the surrounding plants) or snip or pinch them off at soil level. In a single thinning session, you could easily have enough greens for a small salad!
Some of My Favorite Thinnings to Eat:
- Tender greens (lettuce, spinach, chard, arugula, radicchio, bok choy, tatsoi, and other Asian mustards)
- Brassicas (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts)
- Legumes (edamame, snow peas, fava beans, snap beans)
- Climbing plants (summer and winter squash, peas, cucumbers)
- Root vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes, turnips)
- Herbs (basil, cilantro, parsley, fennel, dill)
- Flowers (sunflowers, nasturtiums)