After seeds germinate, do your leggy seedlings look weak and straggly like this? Need some help?
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:
- 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).
- Lack of Soil Moisture. Baby plants can grow weak, skinny stems if the seed raising mix dries out or is poor quality. 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.
- 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!
1. Are these seeds the only ones you have? If so, they’re probably precious and are worth putting a little effort into saving.
2. 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.
3. 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?
4. 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.
It’s all about TIMING!
“If your seedlings are leggy, it may also be because you sowed them at a time of the month when plant energy is low and dormant.”
Maybe you’ve had success one month, but had leggy seedlings the next time? Couldn’t figure out what went wrong? Maybe you blamed the seed company unfairly when they failed? It could just have been you sowed at the wrong time!
If so, it’s likely got to do with getting your TIMING right. I’ve learned to avoid sowing in a 4 day window each month because it’s a waste of time and money. Seeds consistently fail at that time. It’s made a massive difference to success and it’s a simple thing to do.
I follow an easy-to-use perpetual Moon Calendar when raising seeds. I simply sow herbs and vegetables on the days they’re most likely to germinate faster, which saves time and gives the best chance of success. If you want a consistent supply of fresh greens on your table or are raising microgreens to sell, you can save yourself a whole lot of headaches. How? Just sow seeds when soil moisture conditions are in your favour.
How does it work? Just like the tides come and go every day, the gravitational pull of the moon affects seed germination at different times of the month. During the new moon phase, soil moisture is absorbed into the seed faster, so it swells and germinates. Then as the seedling develops a stem, moisture is pulled up in the plant sap, accelerating growth.
It’s just a simple way to work with nature. Gardeners have been growing this way for thousands of years! Now you know, you can time your seed sowing with the ideal moon phase.
“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.
1. Sufficient 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. Or use a low cost grow light if growing indoors.
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.
3. Poor quality seed raising mix
Change or make your own seed raising mix. If your soil mix dries out too fast, it may not have the ideal properties you need for it to consistently hold adequate moisture. A good quality mix should feel moist, but not too dry or too wet. Too much moisture, seedlings rot. Too dry and they starve and become skinny and weak.
That’s why I make my own seed raising mix. It’s quick and simple and you can too. I share 5 DIY seed raising mix recipes you can use here. I raise thousands of seedlings each year and want nutrient-dense, healthy microgreens.
“Whether you’re raising seedlings to eat or sell, your seed raising mix is a critically important ingredient for success.”
4. 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.
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!
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.
- 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! I show you how in this video.
Want to learn more about raising seeds?
Check out my:
- Seed Starting Guide – Quick Tips for Starting Seeds Successfully
- Easy Guide to Growing Microgreens
- 12 Valuable Tips to Grow Healthy Microgreens
- 5 Mistakes to Avoid when Raising Seeds
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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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2016. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.
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