How to Prevent and Fix Leggy Seedlings

After seeds germinate, do your leggy seedlings look weak and straggly like this?

The stems on leggy seedlings are long and thin, but there are few or very tiny leaves.

The stems on leggy seedlings are long and thin, but there are few or very tiny leaves.

What Causes Leggy Seedlings?

‘Leggy’ seedlings typically have stretched skinny stems and look fragile. They may be bending forward rather than growing up straight with a strong stem.

If your newly germinated seedlings look like this, it may be due to one of three common causes:

  1. Insufficient Light. This is the usual reason why leggy, tall thin seedlings develop. Young seedlings can struggle to access adequate light (from the sun, an indirect source or a heat lamp).

 

If lack of light is the issue causing leggy seedlings, this is easy to fix!

If lack of light is the issue causing leggy seedlings, this is easy to fix!

 

  1. Lack of Soil Moisture. Baby plants can grow weak, skinny stems if the seed raising mix dries out. Maybe you just forgot to water often enough! Dry soil stops the seedlings from accessing the nutrients they need to grow strong stems and leaves. They’re literally starving, poor little darlings.

 

  1. High Temperatures. Heat can also cause a rapid growth spurt. This causes the stems to grow faster than the leaves. So the seedling has unbalanced growth. They look like they’re ‘all legs with a tiny head’! This can occur in hot weather or indoors if the temperature is too warm.

 

 “Mistakes are tools for learning. Evaluate your trials. Making mistakes is a sign you’re trying to do things better. There is usually little penalty for mistakes if you learn from them.” – Toby Hemenway, Author Gaia’s Garden

 

4 Factors to Consider with Leggy Seedlings

Should you abandon your babies and start raising seeds again? Or can they be rescued and grow into healthy adult plants? That depends!

  • Are these seeds the only ones you have? If so, they’re probably precious and are worth putting a little effort into saving.
  • Do you have plenty of seeds? If these ones only germinated in the last week or so, maybe you can just start again. You really haven’t lost much.

 

Time your seed sowing to increase germination rates and promote healthy strong seedlings. I use a moon gardening calendar to help me know the best planting times so I swing things in my favour!

Time your seed sowing to increase germination rates and promote healthy strong seedlings. I use a moon gardening calendar to help me know the best planting times so I swing things in my favour!

 

  • What cycle of the moon is it now? You may be able to use it to your advantage. If it’s an optimum time for seed raising within the next few days, starting again may be a good idea. Even as a backup plan! You will likely end up with stronger seedlings that germinate fast and may well overtake these ones in growth anyway.

Moon Calendar Gardening Guide

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  • Are you sowing late in the season? This determines how much time you have to play with. If you don’t raise these babies now and get them into the soil, will you miss the window for planting?

 

“Keep on sowing your seed, for you never know which will grow – perhaps it all will.” – Albert Einstein

How to Fix Leggy Seedlings

If you’ve decided you want to nurture your seedlings back to good health, the solutions are quite simple.

 

If lack of light is the issue causing leggy seedlings, this is easy to fix!

There are some simple fixes for leggy seedlings

 

1. Light. Are your plant babies leaning toward a window or light source? If so, turn them around daily so they grow up straight instead of bent. Ideally, move them to a more suitable spot where the light is stronger. e.g. Close to a window indoors, in a greenhouse or protected outdoor location.

 

2. Dry soil. This may be obvious, but you could try watering more consistently!

  • Wicking tray. One way to water your seedlings is to add a small amount of water to a shallow tray or container. Sit your pot or seed raiser inside the tray. Allow the soil to ‘drink’ up as much moisture as needed. Not too much though. You don’t want your seeds to rot!
  • Set a reminder on your mobile for a daily seedling checkup.
  • Keep a spray bottle handy beside your seedlings. This may also prompt you to water regularly.

 

Mist with a fine spray to keep the soil moist.

Mist with a fine spray to keep the soil moist.

 

3. Too hot. Move your babies to a cooler spot or provide shade protection with filtered light. Ensure they have adequate moisture if the weather is warm.

4. Transplant. If your seedlings are mature enough for transplanting, this may also solve the problem. Gently move your seedlings to a protected area to sun harden them for a few days. This will encourage them to strengthen and get ready to ‘move house’ into the big wide world of your garden!

 

Leggy Seedlings Solution: If your tomato seedlings have long leggy stems, one solution is to plant them deep.

If your tomato seedlings have long leggy stems, one solution is to plant them deep.

 

Bury at least two thirds of the stem under the soil. This can encourage the seedling to grow new roots along the buried length of the stem.


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How to Prevent Leggy Seedlings

What steps can you take to avoid leggy seedlings?

  • STEP 1. Next time you sow seeds, choose a sunny position with good light and ventilation. Then your babies can grow without frying in the heat or straining for sunlight. A mini greenhouse may help control temperature and light.
Seeds germinating into healthy seedlings in punnets with good light and moisture

Seeds germinating into healthy seedlings in punnets with good light and moisture

  • STEP 2. Be observant daily. Don’t wait until a problem occurs. Prevent it earlier. Diagnose any issues before they become too difficult to resolve.
  • STEP 3. Time your seed sowing to work in with the moon cycle. This not only encourages earlier seed germination but plants grow stronger from the start. When they are transplanted into your garden, they are more likely to be resilient to pests and diseases too. A healthy, strong seedling will give you the best chance of success.
  • STEP 4. Out in your garden, self-sown seedlings are naturally blown about by the wind. This helps them develop stronger, thicker stems from ‘birth’. If you’re raising seed ‘babies’ indoors or in a protected environment, use a fan to blow air over your seedlings daily or run your hand over them gently several times. This gentle movement imitates nature. Cool hey? Nature knows best!

 

Want to learn more about raising seeds?

Check out my Seed Starting Guide – Quick Tips for Starting Seeds Successfully and Easy Guide to Growing Microgreens.

Hope these tips help you raise lots of healthy plant ‘kids’ in your garden! If you enjoyed this article, please remember to share.


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6 Comments

  1. SaRayah January 25, 2018 at 6:12 am - Reply

    Again. What can be the problem with my plant leaves? You can actually see through the leaves they’re so light green?

    Thank You For This Website I Love It.

    • Anne Gibson January 25, 2018 at 6:41 am - Reply

      Hi SaRayah
      Without a photo it’s hard to say but if a plant doesn’t have sufficient nutrients their leaves can become pale i.e. lacking in nitrogen and other minerals. That could possibly be an issue. If you have strong sunlight and hot temperatures, then you need to make sure you have adequate moisture in your soil or seed raising mix. Otherwise your your plants can’t grow and photosynthesize properly.
      Try covering the soil with mulch to keep the moisture available.
      Hope this helps and thanks for your feedback about my website. I suggest you join my free newsletter SaRayah so you get regular tips and keep learning.
      Cheers Anne

  2. SaRayah January 25, 2018 at 6:03 am - Reply

    Hello, All this is what I needed to hear. Some of my plants are doing real well. But my Tomatoes have very long stems and very small leaves. I’m in Africa where it is very hot, so I do believe it’s the light that’s the problem. I will try this tip hopefully they will make it.

    Thanks So Much
    SaRayah

  3. Helen Couronc January 8, 2018 at 5:57 am - Reply

    I planted my seeds indoor peat moss tray with plastic cover. Plenty of indirect light. Okra,tomatoes,cilantro are leggy. I planted 12/24/17. Sweet basil seedlings later germinating, not leggy. All are still moist on top. Had to take lid off. I may have put too much water on peat moss. Is that possible, I soaked the peat moss, thx for your article. It did not say too much moister cause of leggy seedlings.

    • Anne Gibson January 8, 2018 at 6:27 am - Reply

      Hi Helen
      As I mentioned in the article, indirect or insufficient light is one of the biggest causes of leggy seedlings. They are straining to reach more light to survive. If growing indoors try to move to a position of stronger light, such as next to a sunny window or under lights. If the seedlings are ready, pot them on in individual pots so they don’t compete with each other for light and nutrients. Moisture is not the issue here – you’re being a good plant ‘mum’ in that regard! They need more energy from light.
      Hope this helps and good luck.
      Cheers Anne

  4. adie January 28, 2017 at 1:46 am - Reply

    i love this site

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