Sprout Identification Guide: How To Tell Seedlings From Weeds

Seedling Sprouting Out Of The Soil
(Image credit: amenic181)

How can you identify seedlings and not mistake them for weeds? This is tricky, even for the most seasoned gardeners. If you don’t know the difference between a weed and a radish sprout, you could destroy your vegetable bed before you have a chance at a harvest. You can learn to identify veggie seedlings, but there are some other tricks that can help as well.

Importance of Sprout Identification

When planning a vegetable bed, you may decide to start from seeds directly in the garden. There are benefits to this, and it eliminates the step of moving transplants from indoors. One issue comes up though – how can you identify seedlings from little veggie sprouts?

Make the wrong identification and you’ll pluck what you think is a weed only to find you pulled out your vegetable seedlings. When plants are at the seedling stage, they look quite different from their mature stage. To avoid ruining your beds before you have barely started, you need to get good at identifying seedlings.

Is it a Seedling or a Weed?

Knowing how to tell seedlings from weeds is a great skill to have as a gardener. You’ll find plenty of resources online to help you make this identification. These include pictures of vegetable seedlings as well as those of common weeds, allowing you to simply check what you have and only pull weed seedlings. Until you get to know your seedlings better, here are some tricks and tips that will help make the task easier:

Sow your seeds in a very straight row and use markers at the beginning and end of the row so you know where seedlings should be when they start to grow.

  • Know germination times for the plants you’re growing. This will help you be aware of when the seedlings should emerge. 
  • Use a control planting to identify your seedlings. Sow a few seeds in a labeled container to make comparisons to what comes up in the garden bed.
  • Avoid pulling weeds until seedlings have developed their true leaves. The first leaves on a seedling are called cotyledons, and they don’t look like the true leaves of a plant, so misidentification is easy at this point.
  • Intentionally sprout weeds early to remove them. A couple of weeks before planting in the garden, place a cold frame, clear plastic, or tunnel cloche over the area you’ll be sowing seeds. This will speed up germination of any weed seeds so you can pluck them out before planting in the bed.
Mary Ellen Ellis

Mary Ellen Ellis has been gardening for over 20 years. With degrees in Chemistry and Biology, Mary Ellen's specialties are flowers, native plants, and herbs.