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Leggy Seedlings: How to Prevent and Fix them For Good!
INSIDE: Seedlings too tall, weak, and spindly? Discover my secret for giving them enough light so they grow healthy and strong. You can prevent and fix leggy seedlings!
A couple of weeks after sowing your seeds indoors, your shoulders sag as you peer at your seedlings…
They don’t look right.
They’re thin, pale, wispy things – all tall skinny stems, and hardly any leaves. It feels like a seed-starting disaster!😥
And you wonder, “can I salvage these seedlings?”
The good news is it’s possible to fix leggy seedlings!
Keep reading to discover how to prevent and fix leggy seedlings…
What’s in this article:
- Leggy seedlings vs. normal seedlings.
- Can leggy seedlings recover?
- How to fix leggy seedlings.
- Frequently asked questions about leggy seedlings.
- Download a free set of grow light stand plans and say goodbye to legginess forever!
This post may contain affiliate links. So, I may get a small commission if you buy something after clicking through. I only link to products I would recommend to my best friend.
Leggy seedlings vs. normal
What are leggy seedlings?
Leggy seedlings are tall, skinny, spindly seedlings that struggle to stay upright. They’re leggy because the plant isn’t getting enough light. As they stretch toward the light, they grow lanky and get top-heavy. They tend to flop over because they can’t support the weight of their leaves.
This is why giving your seedlings plenty of light from the start is important.
So, what do leggy seedlings look like?
Why are leggy seedlings bad?
When you start plants from seed you want them to grow as strong and stocky as possible.
But leggy seedlings aren’t strong enough to withstand outdoor weather conditions.
They’re also more susceptible to pests and diseases, and may not produce well. So, it’s vital to prevent legginess.
Before we discuss how to fix your seedlings, let’s talk about why you have leggy plants, and how to prevent this common seed starting problem.
Why are my seedlings leggy?
1. A lack of strong light will cause leggy plant growth.
When your seedlings don’t have enough light, they extend upwards to get as much light as possible.
As they use up all their energy to reach what light there is, they get stretched out, and you end up with frail, spindly seedlings.
A common mistake many new gardeners make is starting seeds in a south-facing window.
The weak sun in late winter and short days for northern gardeners make growing vigorous seedlings in a window nearly impossible.
Key takeaway: A south-facing window gives off insufficient light for growing seedlings.
Seedlings need 12-18 hours of strong light per day.
And they can’t get that from a windowsill.
The best way to give your seedlings the light they need is to grow them under supplemental lights.
Setting up a seedling grow light stand is easy.
Check out my no-carpentry-required grow light stand tutorial. I’ve included a full list of supplies and instructions.
And as a bonus, you can download a free set of seed starting shelf plans that’ll get you up and running in no time!
2. Crowding can cause spindly seedlings.
When seedlings grow too close together, they don’t get enough light, because they shade each other out.
This forces them to grow taller to compete for the light, and they end up getting leggy.
You can prevent this by thinning out your seedlings when the first leaves appear.
If they’re already in individual pots or cells and they get crowded before they’re ready to pot up, plan to use larger containers next time to keep them farther apart from the start.
3. High heat can cause floppy seedlings.
Heat mats are a great way to germinate seeds quickly but don’t use them after your seeds have germinated unless you’re growing your seedlings in a cold room.
Pro tip: Take your seedling trays off the heat mat once your seeds have sprouted.
- Some seeds require high temperatures to germinate well.
- But many seedlings will have a rapid growth spurt and get leggy when they’re kept too warm.
- So, germinate your seeds at the temperature range recommended on the packet, and then take your seedling trays off the heat mat once your seeds sprout.
Related: FREE vegetable garden printables
4. Lack of air movement can contribute to legginess.
Seeds that germinate outside get the benefit of being strengthened by the wind.
As the wind blows them around, they get a little workout and grow stronger so they can withstand the wind without breaking.
But tender seedlings grown indoors don’t get that benefit.
So, how can you create wind for your seedlings?
Use an oscillating fan.
- Think of a fan as strength training for your seedlings!
- It mimics the windy conditions they’ll face outside. And gives you strong seedlings.
- A fan will also help keep the surface of your soil drier, which helps cut down on things like damping off and mold growth.
I use a small fan clamped to a metal shelf opposite my seed starting setup. You can check out my seed starting rack, and get free plans to set up your own (no carpentry required).
Prices last updated on 2023-03-18 at 18:32
You can gently brush your hand over seedlings several times a day to strengthen them, but I’ve found that using a fan is just as effective, and more convenient if you’re not home all day.
5. Dry soil can cause legginess.
If you let your seed starting mix dry out too much when your seedlings are young, it can cause them to get leggy.
Dry soil stops the plants from getting the nutrients they need to grow well.
Keep your soil evenly moist until your seedlings get their first leaves and are growing strong.
At that point, it’s fine to let the soil dry out in between waterings, as long as your seedlings don’t wilt dramatically. This can help harden them off and lessen transplant shock when it’s time to plant them.
But when they’re young, keep the soil moist.
How do you prevent leggy seedlings?
- Give them enough light from a strong light source, like a shop light. Give them more light ASAP. The next time you start seedlings, make sure you do it under artificial lights.
- Keep them moving, just a little. Using an oscillating fan on a timer will promote stronger, stockier growth.
- Don’t overheat them. If you’re using a heat mat to germinate your seeds, move your trays off the heat once most of the seeds have sprouted.
- Water properly. How often you should water your seedlings depends on how fast they dry out. Keep the soil evenly moist until they get their first set of true leaves.
- Be vigilant. Check your seedlings every day. If they’re getting enough light but are leggy, it may be time to pot them up to a larger container because they’re crowded.
Can leggy seedlings recover?
You may be wondering if you should scrap this batch of seedlings and start over, or try to rescue them? It depends.
Here are a few things to consider when deciding if your seedlings are too leggy to save.
- Are these seeds the only ones you have? If so, it may make sense to try to salvage your seedlings.
- Where are you in the growing season? If it’s late in the season, and you don’t have more time to start seeds, you’ll miss your planting window. So, it can make sense to try to save them.
- How leggy are they? If you’ve caught it early enough, you might be able to save them.
At what point are seedlings beyond saving?
Sometimes it’s heartbreaking, but it’s better to cut your losses.
Here’s what to look for when deciding if a seedling is too leggy to save:
- They’re limp and falling over. It’s better to start over if they’ve gotten this leggy and weak.
- The distance between the soil and the first set of leaves is more than two or three inches.
- The distance between the sets of leaves is an inch and a half or more.
If it’s early enough in the season, and you’re not sure if you can save your seedlings, it’s best to replant.
How to fix leggy seedlings
1. Make sure they’re getting enough hours of strong light.
Seedlings need at least twelve hours of strong light per day.
If you don’t have a seed starting rack, consider building one. I have plans for a DIY grow light stand that can be put together in a few hours.
If you have a cold frame, consider moving your seedlings to it. You may need to shade them for a few days as they acclimate to the extra light in the cold frame.
How can I have leggy seedlings under grow lights?
If you’re already growing your seedlings under lights, and they’ve gotten leggy, make sure to put the lights as close to your plants as possible without burning them.
If you’re using fluorescent lights, and your seedlings are stretching, it’s possible that your bulbs are too old and not putting out enough light.
It’s best to replace your fluorescent light bulbs every few years.
2. If they’re crowded, thin them out.
You should have only one plant per cell or pot. If you’ve grown seedlings in a flat, and they’ve gotten leggy, transplant them to new containers that keep them farther apart.
When you transplant them, avoid touching the stems which are very delicate. If they’re damaged, the plant may not recover.
3. Keep the air moving around your plants.
Put a fan next to your seedlings. Set it on a timer, so they get air movement for a few hours each day.
Or, gently brush the tops of your plants several times per day.
BONUS: As a bonus for joining my weekly newsletter, download a free set of plans and get your grow light assembled in an afternoon.
Watch a video from Cal Oke’s channel about fixing legginess:
4. Plant them deeper: transplanting leggy seedlings.
Can you bury leggy seedlings?
Yes, you can successfully bury some leggy seedlings. You can do this with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and basil.
These plants are all able to grow new roots along their stems.
Bury them in a new pot up to their first set of leaves—these leaves should be sticking out of the soil.
If they have more than one set of leaves, remove their lower leaves and bury them in a taller pot up to the top set of leaves.
Be careful to not damage the stem when you plant your seedlings deeper.
5. Pinch them back
Can you trim leggy seedlings?
Some seedlings respond well to pinching off the top set of true leaves.
This will force them to branch out and grow bushier.
Do pinch annuals such as coleus, cosmos, impatiens, scented geraniums, marigolds, salvia, snapdragons, petunias, and zinnias. Herbs like basil, tarragon, thyme, and sage also respond well to pinching.
But do not pinch campanula, cockscomb, delphinium, dill, stock, larkspur, and most sunflowers.
What is a leggy plant?
A leggy plant has elongated and lanky stems. This problem is common with indoor plants, as they often don’t receive enough sunlight. It can also refer to a plant that doesn’t have enough branches and lacks fullness. You can correct some leggy plants by cutting them or “pinching” them back and providing them with enough light.
Is legginess always caused by light?
No. It can be caused by factors other than a lack of light. Legginess can be caused by crowding, high heat, stagnant air, and dry soil.
How much light should seedlings get?
Seedlings should get 12-16 hours of strong light per day. Seedlings need a minimum of 3,000 lumens per square foot.
Why are my seedlings falling over?
They may not be getting enough light. Make sure they’re getting 12-16 hours of bright light per day. They may be getting too much water. High temperatures could be stressing them, causing them to bolt and fall over. Make sure they’re not too hot. Check the soil to make sure it’s not soggy or waterlogged; if it is, allow it to dry out before watering again. Soggy soil can lead to damping off. If your plants are outside and falling over, they may not have been hardened off adequately before you planted them.
How do you strengthen leggy seedlings?
Leggy seedlings are a common problem for gardeners, but there are a few things you can do to help strengthen them. One way to help leggy seedlings is to give them more light. If they are getting long and spindly, it means they aren’t getting enough light. Try moving them to a sunnier spot, or using grow lights. If your seedlings have multiple sets of leaves, you can pinch them back. But the best way to strengthen leggy seedlings you’re growing indoors is to run an oscillating fan on them.
How can I keep my seedlings from drying out?
Check your seedlings every day. Once the top one-half to one inch of soil is dry, it’s time to water them. Bottom watering is the best way to water your seedlings and prevent diseases from taking hold.
Download your free grow light stand plans
Make sure you have everything you need to set up your seed starting shelves so you can grow healthy seedlings this year and every year! Download my FREE grow light plans and supply list as a bonus for joining my newsletter.
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Want to learn more about seed starting?
These articles will help you become a successful seed starting expert.
Grow Light Setup for Seedlings
Have any questions about preventing legginess or fixing leggy seedlings? Let me know in a comment below!
Hi, I’m Cheryl Spencer, a Certified Gardener.
Born with a plant addiction that has no known cure, I became a Certified Gardener to help ease the symptoms. Now I write articles and create gardening products that help you save time and money in your garden. I believe you can grow your dream garden and still have time to enjoy it. The good news? Anyone can do it. Start here »
26 thoughts on “Leggy Seedlings: How to Prevent and Fix them For Good!”
This is my first time starting from seeds and i did exactly what you said not to do… now that i have read your article… im hoping to be able to salvage most of my seedlings.
Thank you for your article, it was very helpful
I’m glad you found the article helpful. I hope you can save your seedlings!
Thanks for sharing your great tips on preventing leggy seedlings! I often end up pinching back and/or re-potting and planting them deeper.
Thanks for your wisdom on leggy plants! I hope to save mine and work on your grow stand for next year.
You’re welcome! I’m happy to hear you found the article helpful.🙂
Good article, learned a lot. I’ve been known to just throw them all away so it’s great to know I can report them. Thanks for the info.
I’m so glad this helped you!
Your article on leggy seedlings have really helped me so much as a first time seed grower. Thank you so much!
I’m happy to hear you found it helpful! Happy seed starting!
Wow! This was very helpful! I had just planted my seeds when I found your site. How fortunate for me! I am using a fan and have lowered my light source to just above their pretty little heads. I think I will have a better harvest this year. Thank you!
You are so welcome! The fan was a seed-starting game-changer for me! Here’s to a great gardening year!🎉
I have a perplexing problem. I am trying to grow some Primrose (Primula) seed and it says they have to be in the dark to germinate. So I covered them with foil and now I see a few leggy seeds popping up. So what should I do? If the un-sprouted ones need darkness and the leggy seedlings need the sunlight, how do I go about satisfying everybody!!? I’m planning to just take off the foil and hope the other ones come up, but I’m not sure if this is the answer. Thank you for any advice you can give me.
I’d remove the foil. As soon as you start to see some seedlings emerge, that’s the time to remove the cover.
Thank you. I think that would be best, too, just needed some encouragement.
I have so many leggy seedlings! If I pull them and start over, can I use the same soil and peat pot? I bought a fan today and have them under my LED grow light.
I am also wondering if I should take my peppers off the heat mat now that they have sprouted the first two leaves, not true leaves. Thank you!
Yes, you can use the same soil as long as it doesn’t have mold growing on it. Peppers like a bit more heat than other plants, so it’s probably ok to keep them on the heat mat a while longer.
Good morning from Hillsborough, N.B. Canada. I have a grow light, a heated porch. No fan but will try this– wondering if i need more light or nutrients.
Is there a way to salvage tall, (9 inches), spindly cucumber seedlings?
You may be able to save them if you have tall pots you can bury them in. If you do, bury them up to the first set of true leaves.
I’m growing a variety of annual flowers. I have the seed trays in a mini temporary green house with a zipper plastic clear cover. The seeds are popping up and it’s warm and muggy in the greenhouses. Should I open them up so it’s not so warm and muggy in there and provide some air flow (maybe even a fan as you suggested)?
Yes! Air circulation will help reduce the chance of disease, such as damping off.
I just started a bunch of seeds for the first time ever, and almost all of them are leggy…I didn’t even know it was a bad thing. I was wondering when they were going to start growing out instead of up, though. Hopefully I can save them. Luckily I already had a box, nice lights, and a nice fan specifically for grow boxes laying around.
Thank you for this very helpful article!!
I have leggy squash seedlings I started indoors, and I think it’s time to harden them off to get them outside. But I have 31 🤭
Moving that many in and out is trouble. I have them in a small bathroom with a fan so I’ve been opening the window to let the outside air in to slowly start hardening them off. Do you have any tips to help harden off leggy squash seedlings that I can’t give up on 😹
The fan and air movement will help some, but to really harden off seedlings you need to gradually expose them to the same conditions they’ll experience outside. There are a few ways you can do that.
1) You can move them in and out over the course of a week, exposing them to more and more sunlight – which is a PITA.
2) You can use a cold frame and several layers of shade cloth — removing a layer of shade cloth every couple of days – this means you won’t need to bring them in at night unless there’s a severe cold snap predicted.
3) Use Wall O’Waters. Harden them off for 2-3 days and then plant them in Wall O-Waters. I’ve found that seedlings don’t need to be hardened off a full week before planting them in Wall O’ Waters.
Thank you! I’ll try again using your suggestions. My poor starters were so sad. I love your ideas and fixes
Thank you so much. This was my first year planting so have no grow lights.
Had started petunias but they did much better and are more bushy than tall.