The fine art of dibbling: Advice for transplanting seedlings

FARGO -- If you promise not to laugh, I'll describe my past method of transplanting seedlings. It all started in junior high as I was learning to grow tomato and petunia plants from seed for my parents' flower beds and vegetable garden.

Seedlings can be transplanted once they reach the "true leaf" stage.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Seedlings can be transplanted once they reach the "true leaf" stage. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO -- If you promise not to laugh, I'll describe my past method of transplanting seedlings. It all started in junior high as I was learning to grow tomato and petunia plants from seed for my parents' flower beds and vegetable garden.

After the seeds germinated, I planned to transplant seedlings from the seed tray into individual Styrofoam cups with nail holes punched in the bottom. I carefully lifted the tiny plants out of the seed tray, gingerly held a seedling suspended in a cup with one hand, and scooped soil around the roots with the other until the cup was full.

Although my clumsy method worked, a whole new world opened the spring I worked at North Dakota State University's Horticulture Department for tomato researcher and professor Neal Holland (now owner of Sheyenne Gardens, Harwood, N.D.). Under Neal's guidance, we transplanted thousands of seedlings into containers by the efficient process called "dibbling."

Wouldn't it save a lot of work just planting seeds directly into pots or cell-packs and eliminate the tedious job of hand-transplanting? Because seedlings become stronger as they are planted slightly deeper, decreasing the amount of stretched stem. During our years in the greenhouse business my wife, Mary, and I rarely "direct seeded." Instead we hand-transplanted tens of thousands of seedlings each year into cell-packs.

Dibbling is the classic method of transplanting seedlings. When seedlings have produced their first set of "true leaves," they're ready to transplant out of the seed tray. (The first leaves that emerge from the soil are the cotyledons, or "seed leaves," which look very different from the actual leaves of tomatoes, for example.)


Choose a top quality potting mix. Plants don't grow well in poor soil. I recommend Miracle Gro Potting Mix so often, you'd think I was on the take from the company. I'm not; I've just always experienced good results. Also recommended are most potting mixes suggested by locally owned garden centers. They often sell bags of the mixes they use in their own greenhouse production.

Moisten the potting soil before use. Add water to the bag and stir well the day before transplanting. Given at least 24 hours, the mix absorbs moisture and becomes mellow and workable.

Now choose containers into which seedlings will be grown until it's time to plant them into flower beds and vegetable gardens. Greenhouse-type cell packs are readily purchased everywhere from home improvement stores to garden centers. Maybe your garage is full of recycled packs. Peat pots work well. I've grown great bedding plants and vegetable transplants in Styrofoam cups with holes poked in the bottom.

Fill the containers with pre-moistened soil mix, and settle firmly by tapping the container's base on a hard surface. Add more mix as needed so the soil is level with the top rim of the container. The soil will settle more upon watering. It's important to have the soil level high, rather than a cell-pack or container half empty.

Next we need a dibble. That's the official name given to a pointed tool inserted into the soil mix, making a hole into which the seedling's roots are planted. A pencil can be used for a dibble if seedlings are small and roots aren't large. A great dibble can be made from a wooden dowel cut to about 4 inches in length and sharpened or whittled to a tapered point.

Seedlings are easier to lift if the soil in the seed tray is neither too wet nor too dry. If too dry, seedlings might be wilted. If too muddy, it's difficult to separate seedlings. If the tray is watered the day before, it's usually just right.

Insert the dibble into the soil of the seed tray just below a clump of seedlings. While holding the seedlings with one hand, gently lift the dibble, raising seedlings and roots out of the soil. Gently separate seedlings. Most types should be transplanted singly. Exceptions are herbs, alyssum and moss rose, which are best planted in small clumps.

Using the dibble, make a hole in the soil in the center of the container. Grab a seedling with the other hand, and set it into the soil hole, gently pressing the roots in with the dibble. Be careful not to kink or snap the stem.


Plant seedlings deeper than they were in the seed tray, right up to the leaves, eliminating stretched stems. Seedlings planted shallowly are too whippy. Firm the soil onto the roots by pressing down with the dibble. It is important that seedlings be planted firmly with no wiggle. Water immediately after planting, and add more mix if soil has settled deeply. Move the transplants to sunshine or under lights.

Next time someone call you a dibbler, just say thanks.

Kinzler worked as an North Dakota State University Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at .

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