Protecting Seedlings

Young tender plants often need support and protection from the wind, as well as, browsing animals and birds. This guide is about protecting seedlings.

Plastic bottles covering plants in garden.
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Article: Don't Mistake Your Seedlings for "Weedlings"

By EllenB 793 1

WeedingIt's a universal experience among gardeners, especially in the spring-yanking out a weed only to find out later it was really a "wanted". Weeds will do whatever it takes to survive, even disguising themselves as other plants. Here are some helpful tips for telling your your seedlings apart from your weedlings.

Identify Weeds Before You Seed

Weeds are pioneers and they usually grow faster than wanted seedlings. Most are up and growing in the spring long before your wanted seeds are planted in the garden. Prepare garden beds several weeks before planting. Dormant weed seeds will germinate in the disturbed soil and produce flushes of weed seedlings that can be removed before planting your garden seeds. Take note of what the weedlings look like as you remove them from the soil. You may also find it helpful to take a camera with you and keep digital files of weedlings on your computer for easier identification later on.

Sow in Straight Lines

Make it easy to identify weeds by sowing your seeds in straight lines or rows rather than broadcast sowing them. Once germinated, your seedlings (which will all look similar) will easily outnumber the weedlings. Anything growing outside of the line can be considered fair game when it's time to weed.

Plant Pots of Seedlings

This works well if you're growing a plant for the first time and you've never laid eyes on the seedlings. Set aside 1/2 dozen of the seeds your sowing outdoors, and plant them in a pot near a sunny windowsill. Your crop of weed-free seedlings will make it easy to tell the weeds from the "wanteds" once they pop up in the garden. At most, you'll be out a few seeds. At best, you may end up with 1/2 dozen additional transplants for your garden.

The Scientific Approach: Monocots vs. Dicots

Plants are either monocotyledons (monocots) or dicotyledons (dicots). Seedlings from monocots have one seed leaf, and include the grasses, palms, aroids and bulbs. Seedlings from dicots have two seed leaves, and include most other types of garden plants. If you have a seedling with only one leaf (monocot) where you know you've only sown dicots, then the seedling is probably a weed. If you've sown seeds of only monocots and your seedling has two leaves (dicot), it is probably a weed.

The Wait-and-See Approach

Sometimes it's best to avoid uncertainty and settle on a wait-and-see approach. As plants grow into their true leaves, it usually becomes easy to tell the weeds and seedlings apart. And with time, comes experience. Once you have been planting and weeding the same garden beds over several seasons, you will find it much easier to recognize the weeds from the "wanteds".

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Tip: Protecting Pine Seedlings From Deer Browsing

By EllenB 793 1

Protecting Pine Seedlings From Deer Browsing Young trees are a favorite snack of hungry deer, especially in the spring and fall while there's still snow on the ground. Most young pines can recover from minor amounts of repeat browsing as long as the terminal bud remains intact. Here is a cheap and effective solution to protect terminal bud clusters and help get your pine seedlings get through the winter.

Why Protect the Terminal Bud?

A tree seedling's terminal bud (the bud or cluster of buds at the very top of the tree), is a key factor in determining the overall height and future growth of the tree. As long as the terminal bud remains undamaged, growth continues in a vertical manner and the tree's natural shape is maintained. However, when the terminal bud is eaten or damaged, growth can become restricted, deformed and unbalanced. Many trees will never achieve their natural shape or true growth potential once their terminal bud is chewed off by deer. They may adapt when an adjacent branch bends upward and eventually takes over as the "leader" branch, but their growth and form may be forever compromised.

Bud Capping: A Cheap and Effective Solution

Bud capping is a method of protecting tree seedlings that has been used in forest management for years. It involves stapling a small "cap" made from paper around the terminal bud cluster on the leader branch. The caps are typically applied in the fall before snow cover forces the deer to start nibbling on whatever they can find above ground. If left on through the following spring, new growth is simply pushed out through the opening in the folded paper. Bud caps should be applied annually until the terminal leaders are at least 4-5 feet tall and out of reach of hungry deer.

Constructing Bud Caps

To construct bud caps, cut paper into 4 x 6 inch pieces. Use the lightest weight paper possible (fax, photocopy, notebook, etc.) so that new growth can push through easily in the spring. White pines have fragile terminal buds, so the paper should only be 3 x 4 inches in size. The weight of snow sticking to the paper can cause the terminal bud to bend over, and a smaller piece of paper will not catch as much snow.

Applying Bud Caps

Using a common office stapler, fold the piece of paper around the terminal bud of the leader branch and using three staples, staple it to some needles near the top. The paper should be positioned so that the terminal bud cluster is at least 1/2 inch below the top of the paper, but no lower than the paper cap's mid-point. Apply each staple no more than 1 inch from the edge of the paper. Place one staple vertically near the middle edge, and one each near the top and bottom corners at 45 degree angles. The bud cap should be secured tight enough with the staples so it won't blow off in the wind.


  • Bud caps should be applied in the fall before the first snowfall (usually October, no later than December/January).

  • A bud cap only needs to last a few months, so use a lightweight paper like computer paper or notebook paper. Caps manufactured from metal or plastic mesh can be purchased in bulk from tree farm supply companies. If you plan to leave caps on all year, they may be better than paper because they allow air and light to reach new growth.

  • Caps are normally 4x6 inches but may be smaller for tree species with weak terminal buds like white pines.

  • Use three staples, each containing some needles, to hold the cap snugly in place.

  • Depending on the tree species, caps should be applied annually until the sapling's terminal leader grows too tall for browsing.

  • If you have a large number of tree seedlings that need protecting, you may want to contact a local tree service to request a bid for this type of work. Bids should be submitted on a per tree or per acre basis. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, about 200-300 bud caps can be applied per hour by an experienced person and may average about 5 cents per tree.

  • Bud caps will not prevent the rest of your seedling from being eaten by deer. Most trees will survive minor browsing, however in areas of heavy browsing, bud caps may not be enough to deter deer. In these cases, use tubing or fencing to protect seedlings from damage by deer and other animals.

Hardwood Tree Seedlings

Bud caps are usually used on conifers, but hardwood seedlings (like oak) can be bud capped, too. This can also be done during the dormant season (fall), however they typically get browed most heavily as new growth emerges in the spring. As an alternative to paper bud caps, hardwood seedlings can be protected with ordinary latex party balloons. These can be applied in the fall after the seedling goes dormant (leaf off) and removed again in the spring (April/early May) before bud break. Use a balloon with the appropriate size opening and pull it down over the top buds and down over the stem. The bottom end of the balloon (the open end) can then be stretched out and stapled shut close to the stem to keep it secure.

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Tip: Protect Seedlings With Recycled Plastic Bottles

By Nana 2

I just planted my garden for this year. I had started the plants indoors, and we live in the Panhandle of Texas where we get LOTS of wind. I planted these small delicate plants on a very nice day. Then, of course, this morning the wind started blowing. I'm concerned the small plants will be blown to death, and I'll be out there with nothing left in my garden.

So, I got some 2 liter bottles that I had in my recycling bin. I also had some water bottles saved for recycling too. I cut the bottom and the top off and slid them down over my small delicate plants to protect them from the wind. They will still receive the light and I can still water them. This is working great for these plants.

By Nana from Panhandle of Texas

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Tip: Toilet Paper Roll For Fragile Seedlings

By Jeannie 3 15

Another use for toilet paper rolls. If you start plants that produce fragile seedlings (like sweet peas) that don't like transplanting, plant them vertically encased in a toilet paper roll. When it's time to transplant, remove the roll and seedling from your medium intact and transplant the whole thing. The roll protects the plant during the transport and after relocating. Then the roll just biodegrades into your soil.

Source: Garden Club info on winter seeding.

By Jeannie from Vancouver BC

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Tip: Protect Seedlings From Birds

By Susan Wolfe 20 38

Anxious to get our tomato seedlings into the ground, I thought of a way to protect the cute little plants from birds. Grab an old metal cloths hanger by the hook end with one hand and grab the middle of the longer (bottom) part of the hanger with the other hand. Pull with both hands to stretch the hanger so it kind of looks like a big, very odd looking bubble blowing wand. Straighten the hook end out, as it will end up being the post you stick in the ground near the plant. If you like, you can use several "hanger" supports, 8 to 12 inches apart, per plant.

After sticking the post end in the ground, place a piece of bird netting over the top of the newly created support, assuring the netting is touching the ground, by at least 6 inches (more is better) on each side. Tie several pieces of yarn, string or plastic ties to secure the netting to the top of the "hanger" support. You can secure netting to the ground by making "U-shaped" wires from another cloths hanger to push through netting holes, into the ground. Or you could weight down the netting to keep it from blowing in the wind. You can make row covers as well, by using one long piece of netting and strategically placing "hanger" supports in the row. Tie the netting to the top of each support.

When the seedlings become large enough for self-protection from the birds, you can remove the netting. You can save your newly created "hanger" supports for other years. You can tie the hanger supports together, as they will stay better while in storage. It's an inexpensive and easy way to help your seedlings survive. I can't wait to pick that first juicy tomato, can you? And the birds can't wait to pluck those cute little tender seedlings out of the ground. We'll see who wins, as this is the first time I've tried this project. I really think it will work, don't you?

By Susan from Clinton, TN

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Tip: Paper Tube to Mark Seedlings

By Patricia 2 1

When you want to grow a small amount of seeds, and know exactly where you've planted them, use a toilet paper tube.

Holding the cardboard tube upright, take your scissors and cut upwards about 1 1/2 inches all around the bottom of the roll. You will need to have the strips wide enough to push all of them towards each other to seal off the bottom.

You can also using a small tomato paste can and push newspaper down into the empty can. Cut the paper around the top of the can so it won't hang over the edges. then pop it out of the can and you have another holder.

Just dig holes in the ground, put your growing medium in the container, add the seeds, then I use a plastic knife or something to identify what seeds they are.

Hope you have as much fun as I do making these.

By Tootsiepie from Bay City, MI

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Tip: Protecting Seedlings

By nonniebeth 11 23

My sweet grandson always comes over to weed eat in my yard. Although I do appreciate his help, he cannot tell a weed from a new plant I've put out and has hacked a few of my plants down by accident. Now I cut the top and bottom out of a tin can. Using my tin snips, I cut it down the center and put it around the new plants. Now he can safely weed eat without harming my new seedlings!

By nonniebeth from Rome, GA

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Tip: Windbreaks for Seedlings

By Alan B. 4 8

Use the free supermarket plastic carrier bags as small windbreaks for recently planted seedlings.

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Tip: Pinestraw to Protect New Plants

By ann 22 9

During hot days, put pinestraw on top of new trees or plants to keep the sun from burning them.

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Archive: Using Soda Bottle To Protect Seedlings And Delicate Plants

My tip for protecting small plants and starters is to cover them with a 2 liter clear plastic soda bottle. I cut off the bottom and discard it. Then I place the remaining bottle over my small or sensitive plants and flowers to protect them from the elements. The great thing about this is that the bottles are clear so they continue to get sun and if I need to water them, I simple unscrew the bottle tops, give them a little drink and air during the day and then close them back up at night. This system has been working very will for me since I started doing it several years ago. Of course I have only a balcony garden as I live in the middle of a large city.

By Lisingreece from Greece

Archive: Using Soda Bottle To Protect Seedlings And Delicate Plants

Cut off the tops of 2 liter plastic soft drink bottles to use to protect seedlings (and to discourage cutworms). Use the bottoms of the bottles as saucers for potted plants. They work great and will protect surfaces from spills if you over water.

By Laurie from Fairbanks, AK

Home and Garden Gardening Helpful HintsMay 15, 2012
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