In the Garden – Fragile Stretch

What do you do if your seedlings are looking a little lank and leggy?

Last time we talked, we were in the process of starting vegetable plants from seed and trying to convince you how very easy it is… and fun!

Have you tried it yet?  If you have, we hope you will tell us about it in the comments below (we love engaging with our readers, we always learn something new… and hope you do too!)

This time we are going to talk about what to do if the stems of your seedlings are looking fragile, skinny, stretched out and downright lank and “leggy”.

Several weeks ago we performed a germination test on some older tomato seeds.  The majority of those seeds germinated and rather than toss them, we planted them. Even though they have resided in our sunniest window, as you can see, they are getting leggy.

This is normal. For its survival, the little seedling will grow toward the light; since the light currently available is too far away, the plant has to accelerate its growth in an effort to get closer to the light, thus making it leggy.

To prevent this, especially in the northern reaches of the country where we are still only getting about 12 hours (or less) of light a day, you may find you need to use a grow light.

There are a couple of other reasons seedlings appear leggy:

  • too much warmth can cause growth spurts and;
  • dry soil will cause them to not grow properly.

Tomatoes, especially, do well with repotting when they grow leggy. The small hairs on their stems will actually grow into roots when planted below the dirt.

Note: if your seedling is getting adequate light, warmth, and moisture and are not getting leggy, you won’t need to repot it until you either see roots on the surface of the soil or see roots coming out the drainage holes.

Repotting is a bit of a messy project; I had originally planned to do it outside, on the deck, but the past few weeks have been very snowy here in Western Washington and we still have over a foot of snow on the deck.

As I write this from my desk, I’m looking out the window where the weather keeps switching between snow, sleet, hail, thunder & lighting and sunshine; thankfully, the sun winning at the moment.  The weather this year has been much different year than last year.  I’m left pondering how the differences will impact the coming growing season.

Basic Steps for Repotting Seedlings

  • Gather your materials (pots, potting soil, something to label the pot with, butter knife or something to help you gently pry the start out of the pot).
  • Water the seedlings well. Moist soil won’t cling to the sides of the pot making removing the seedling easier and it will also protect the roots from drying out.
  • Be gentle!  Don’t tug or pull the tender plants from their flats or trays. Use a butter knife, popsicle stick or something similar to coax the seedling from its container.
  • If there is more than one seedling in the container, carefully separate them and repot individually.
  • Place the seedling in a new pot, fill with soil and gently tap down the soil.
  • Label the pot with the plant name.
  • Water well.  Wait a few days until the seedling settles into its new home before using any fertilizer and even then it should be diluted to prevent root burn.

Here’s how we did it.  We’ve included a few tips to make your experience more enjoyable.

Before we start transplanting, we like to sterilize our pots in a bucket (in this case, a repurposed, clean kitty litter bucket) of hot water that has been treated with a splash of household bleach (UC Davis Extension suggests 1 part bleach to 9 parts water for sterilizing all your gardening equipment).  We allow the pots to soak about 30 minutes before using them.

Since we are doing this inside, the table is covered with newspaper to make cleanup easier.

If you started your seed in an eggshell, you don’t need to remove the seedling from the shell, just repot it along with the seedling. We like to crack the shell to make it easier for the roots to grow through it.   It’s pretty much the same if you use newspaper pots, egg cartons, cardboard paper rolls – it can all planted with the seedling and will eventually breakdown in the soil.

Because these seedlings are leggy, we’ve planted them deeper than we would normally – about 2/3 of the stem is under the soil.

Some folks will tell you to toss a leggy seedling and try again.  To us, it seems like such a waste of time and resources to do that, however, if you have seeds left and the time, you can certainly try again.  Since these are tomatoes, which have an amazing ability to grow roots out their stems, we’ve opted to repot them.

(Note: several seasons ago, I had this happen to some squash plants.  A Master Gardener told me to toss them and start over.  Another gardener suggested I repot them as an experiment.  I reported them and I’m glad I did!  The seedlings prospered and were successfully transplanted in the garden where they did exceedingly well. Unfortunately, my friendship with the Master Gardener ended abruptly –  I think not taking her advice offended her.  You will find what works best for you and don’t be afraid to experiment.)

Fill the pot with soil, gently pack it down and water well.  That’s it.

If you have a grow light system, keep using it.  You want the light about two inches above the seedlings and moving it up as the seedlings grow taller.  Doing this will ensure they don’t get leggy.

Have you checked out our Garden Journal, yet?  It’s a great tool to help you minimize your failures and maximize the fun and success you have in the garden!  Order today and get started on your best garden season yet!

Do you sterilize your soil or your pots?  Have any tips?  Leave them in the comments below. 

Be sure to visit us again – our next “The the Garden” post will talk about grow lights and how you can make your own grow tent!

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Content and Photos by Misty Meadows Homestead © All Rights Reserved

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