Leggy Seedlings: Too Much Leg Can Be A Bad Thing

By Shannon McKee
Published: May 20, 2020
Key Takeaways

Many colder-climate gardeners like to get an early start by starting seeds indoors. However, an issue that can arise is having gangly, leggy seedlings. If you’ve dealt with this problem, Shannon McKee offers some insight and solutions.

Depending on where you live, the best way to extend your growing season is by starting your seeds indoors. It's often the perfect option for those plants and vegetables that have a longer period of time from planting to harvest. However, this wonderful way to get a leg up on the season can create some issues, including leggy seedlings. What is a leggy seedling?


At first glance, a leggy seedling might seem like a great start. They grow like crazy, but this can be part of the problem. A leggy seedling is one that is very tall and looks almost stretched out. It can start to appear weak and look scraggly. The stem that once started out straight can often start curving one way or the other. These are all signs of leggy seedlings.

Read also: Germinating Seeds and Caring for Seedlings


Causes of Leggy Seedlings

There are a few reasons why the seeds you started are becoming leggy.

  1. The first is your light source. If your plants have to stretch towards the light, they are going to do what they have to in order to get the light they need. Natural light is great, but it may be more beneficial for your seedlings to have an adequate light source if your window isn’t cutting it. Your seedlings should get between six and eight hours of light a day.
  2. Second is the temperature. If you’re feeling the heat, there’s a good chance your seedlings are as well. Your seedlings may start to grow rapidly due to heat that can lead to them getting leggy. The stem often outpaces leaf growth at this point, making this rapid growth spurt hard on the seedlings.
  3. A third potential cause of leggy seedlings is the growing medium not having enough nutrients. The seedlings may be starving, which causes the thin stems and sparse leaves.
  4. The fourth cause of leggy seedlings is overcrowding. Putting too many seeds into a small area means the seedlings will have to compete with each other for the limited sunlight, moisture, and nutrients. Not having enough of these necessary growing components will cause the plant to struggle.
  5. The final cause is water. Your seedlings need plenty of water when they’re growing. Not enough moisture can also result in a thin stem.

How to Deal with Leggy Seedlings

The first thing you should ask yourself is whether or not you’ll be better off just starting some new seedlings and sacrificing those leggy seedlings. Things you should consider are whether you have more seeds you can start and the amount of time until you can plant outside. If you’re cutting it too close to planting season or used up all your seeds, it may be time to make peace with the seedling hand dealt you and make the most of them.

Read also: Starting Seeds Indoors - Off to an Early Start


You have options to help your leggy seedlings thrive depending on when you started to notice the issue. If it’s still too early to start hardening your seedlings for transplant, you’ll want to correct the issue. For instance, add more lighting around your seedlings or making sure you keep the soil moist. Making these adjustments may help in curbing the irregular growth seen so far.

However, if you can transplant them right away, it is beneficial to harden them now in the same manner you would any seedling. Put them out in a sheltered place for a few days and allow them to adjust from being inside to outside. Don’t make the mistake of transplanting too soon, especially with delicate leggy seedlings, as they are much less likely to thrive. After they’ve hardened, transplant them into the garden. For tomatoes and similar leggy seedlings, you can plant the stem a bit deeper into the ground to give them more support.


Can You Prevent Leggy Seedlings?

The good news is that you can prevent leggy seedlings. You’ll want to address all of the issues mentioned previously, such as temperature and spacing, but there are a few additional tricks you can do to stimulate your plants to grow properly.

Use a fan to stimulate a more natural environment. Plants that are sown outside withstand wind as seedlings and this stimulation from the breeze causes them to grow steadier stems. Give your indoor-sown seedlings the same opportunity. A fan works great to do this, but you can also use your fingers to ruffle them gently every so often to get the same effect.

Read also: Are Your Plants Getting Enough Light?

A watering trick you’ll want to use is to make sure the entire growing material gets moist by dispensing water into the bottom of the pot rather than spraying from the top. You can do this by using a seedling tray that promotes tray watering or placing your pots into a bucket of water that allows the pot to absorb as much water as it needs.

Don't despair if you’ve gotten leggy seedlings from your started seeds. You can work to save the strongest ones this growing season and create a different setup for next season to help prevent this issue from occurring again.


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Written by Shannon McKee | Freelance Writer, Gardener

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Shannon McKee lives in Ohio and has been a freelance writer for several years now, including on her blog, Nicknamed by loved ones a garden hoarder over the past few years, she grows a wide variety of plants in her urban garden.

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