Leggy seedlings...start over or just germinate outdoors?

April 5, 2013

Hi all, obviously by the post title, I'm a newbie at this and making mistakes already! Last year, I planted seeds and starts directly in garden beds, but I wanted to try starting from seed this year, but...the results so far have been tall, spindly little plants with two little leaves, and I'm finding out that my seedlings are being described by those in the know as "leggy". They're 3 weeks old at this point and about 3-4 inches tall with two, tiny leaves, and it seems they're stalled at that point. Some of them are toppled over; some of them have been moved to larger pots and just died altogether.

They grew in warm, moist conditions in a bright, sunny room (2 large windows and one french door, but this is Portland and there's not much sun here at all).

I just ordered a grow light from Amazon and should have it tomorrow, and I was wondering if y'all could help with two things I'm determined to achieve:
1) I want a decent crop of veggies / fruits to preserve at the end of the season
2) I want to use at least some seedlings this year to learn how to do them the right way.

I'm growing a whole bunch of things, but the main plants I'd like to see be successful are: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and watermelon. I'm planting in raised garden beds and pots only.

Since I'll have a grow light this weekend, is it too late to get the seeds started at this point? TIA for any advice!

Comments (13)

  • mandolls

    Yes start over with the light. - You are really late for Peppers and Eggplants - they are slow growers. I would suggest buying plant of those. I am just getting ready to start my tomatoes this weekend. I cant plant them out until the end of May. Melons you should be fine - 4 weeks max before planting them out (do you have enough sun and heat to grow melons in Oregon?)

  • digdirt2

    Agree with mandolls above. Next time fist explore all the information resources available over on the Growing from Seed forum here. There is a great set of how-to FAQs there.

    And in addition to the light situation keep in mind that warm growing conditions also contributes to leggy plants. Once germinated plants much prefer cooler temps for growing on.


    PS: are you using a heat mat for germination?

    Here is a link that might be useful: Growing from Seed forum

  • ech77

    How close to the window were the plants? Glass attenuates light, and it is not just the light that makes plants grow, it is the sun's radiation. It is likely that they are leggy because they are to far from the window.

  • Paulah1

    I've put so much time and money into this that I really want it to succeed, so I spent the day reading up. I have made (or was about to make) a whole host of mistakes, so I think I have a plan now and will just start from scratch this weekend. Not all of my seedlings have sprouted yet; I planted in rounds, so all is not lost, I think I'll save what I can and re-plant what is too tall and spindly looking (mostly tomato plants). I'll pop over to the FAQ section to see if there's anything I've missed. I'm still going to try to grow the peppers and eggplant from seed since I have them started already and they don't seem too tall, but I will also plant starts in May to hedge my bets.

    No, I'm not using a heat mat. The plants were covered for at least a few days (until the first seeds that sprouted were hitting the top of the cover). The temp inside ranges from 68 - 78F--do I need a heat mat in addition? That seems excessively only took about 2 days for some of them to come up.

    The plants are on my counter top in between windows, about 2 feet away from one and 4 feet from another. The door is about 6 feet away. It fills the room with light, but it is often cloudy here, and it does sound like they are too far away.

    This is a lot of work! I hope it gets easier once I know what in the heck I'm doing. :)

  • watercoloreyes

    Paulah, I came here to post nearly the same exact thing! Planted seeds on Monday (aka 5 days ago), and I'm already getting 'leggy' romaine seedlings. I fastened a florescent blub above them (just 3 plants) for added light, but for a plant that's only taken 5 days to germinate, it seems odd that they'd already be leggy. Didn't want to hijack your thread, just didn't want to start another one with basically the same issue.:) Any help from you pros would be extremely welcome!

  • digdirt2

    The reason I asked if a heat mat was used was that if one is the seedlings need to be removed from it ASAP the first begin to break the surface. Many make the mistake of leaving them sitting on the heat mat.

    Heat, both soil temp and air temps can play a big role in leggy seedlings too. Soil heat needs to be off and air temps of 65-70 are ideal. Even cooler is fine too. Commercial growers try to maintain a maximum high of no more than 65.

    But keep in mind that many leggy seedlings can be transplanted and planted deep burying most of the leggy stalk/stem and do well IF then provided with proper light and air temps.


  • another_buffalo

    Leggy tomatoes can be saved. Just transplant the little buggers and bury the stem up to the first leaf. It should put out roots all up and down that burried stem. Then put it under the lights. You may can save them and it would definately be worth it. When you plant them outside, pinch off the lower leaves and bury the stem some more. It makes the root system much stronger.

  • mandolls

    "The plants were covered for at least a few days (until the first seeds that sprouted were hitting the top of the cover)."

    Covers need to come off as soon as the seed sprouts. For most plants, super high humidity will lead to fungus and or damp off diseases.

    watercolor - "leggy-ness" can happen easily in 24-48 hrs if there is not enough light and to much heat. You want the little guys 1-3" from your fluorescent tubes, in a cool room.

  • Raw_Nature

    I couldn't agree with mandolls more! As soon as you see a tiny sprout, flick the lights and a fan on! Keep them lights as close to the plants as possible without could put Fluescent tubes touching the plants with very little concern. You really don't need that cover, I don't use one. Just come along with a light mist once or twice a day until they sprout.


  • NilaJones

    This time of year, in the northwest, most plants will want to be moved outdoors as soon as the seeds germinate. I don't mean planting them in the ground -- just move the trays or pots out to your porch or yard.

    When online directions say to grow seedlings in a sunny window they are NOT talking about our climate. That is not something you can do here without additional lights suspended directly over the seed trays. But you can germinate them indoors where it's warm and you can keep an eye on them, and them move them out as soon as they sprout.

    Don't transplant seedlings into bigger pots. They are very delicate and if you don't have much experience they probably won't survive. Just start the seeds in trays or pots that are big enough to let them grow a bit, and then move them directly from there into the ground when they have 2 or 3 sets of real leaves.

    If you have slugs or snails (most gardens here do) then start squashes and beans in 4" pots and grow them as huge as you can before transplanting.

    Good luck! And yes, it is a lot of work even when you have practice. Buying starts often makes more sense.

  • Paulah1

    Ok, so I have spent the afternoon hedging my bets. I decided to use the supplies I had on hand and was able to transplant the leggy tomato seedlings into larger pots (thank you another_buffalo), plant new tomato seeds, get rid of the dead seedlings, and get everything that's already green under the grow light. At this point, what doesn't survive will have to be replaced with starts, I guess. I also typed up all my notes so I remember what I need to improve upon for next year, and planned where everything will go outside. I'll keep people posted so that anyone who's looking for info on this type of issue will know what worked for me 'cause I'm hoping something will work!

    NilaJones, thanks for your input for our specific area. Do you really think it's ok to put seedlings outside this early? Last year, I sowed seeds direct into the ground outdoors around Mid-May, and the poor things had to suffer through 2 hail storms and some cold spells. Portland has some weird weather.

    Thank you all again for the advice!

  • digdirt2

    I'm glad to hear you elected to transplant them. Millions of seedlings get transplanted annually and it is really quite easy to do. More importantly, the plants actually benefit from the transplanting process in several ways.

    Good luck with your plants.


  • NilaJones

    >NilaJones, thanks for your input for our specific area. Do you really think it's ok to put seedlings outside this early? Last year, I sowed seeds direct into the ground outdoors around Mid-May, and the poor things had to suffer through 2 hail storms and some cold spells. Portland has some weird weather.

    You're very welcome :).

    Outside, yes. And it's especially important if you don't have adequate artificial light for them indoors.

    In the ground is different story. If we get a cold snap, you can bring seedling trays of tropical plants like eggplant and tomatoes indoors for a night.

    Other babies like kale, lettuce, peas, etc. are happiest with cool weather anyway, so you can go ahead and plant them in the ground if the snails won't eat them.. They can stay out even when it's below freezing, this time of year. And all winter, most years.

    Hail is not a problem unless your seedlings are so tiny that a hailstone hits one and kills it. When we get hail, air and ground temperatures are still pretty warm. You notice the hail melts in 5 minutes :).

    I planted out my pole beans a week ago. I worried about them a little last night, with the wind and heavy rain, but they looked so happy this morning! They like this kind of weather :). Their root systems are not big enough for hot sun yet. Cool and moist is just what they want.

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