A Fragile Stretch

Last time we talked, we were in the process of starting vegetable plants from seed and I was trying to convince you how very easy it is… and fun!  Have your tried it yet?  If you have, we hope you will tell us about it in the comments below.   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 “leggy”.

Several weeks ago we performed a germination test on some older tomato seeds.  The majority of those seeds germinated; 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 a normal process – for its survival, the little seedling will grow toward the light; since the light currently available is too far away, the plant has accelerated 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 10 hours (or less) of light a day, you may find you need to use a grow light. We don’t have ours set up yet.  We will do a follow-up post specifically about grow lights and greenhouses and may even bring in a guest blogger for that!

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.

If your seedling is getting adequate light, warmth, and moisture and it’s not getting leggy, you won’t need to repot it until you either see roots on the surface of the soil or see them 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 days have been very snowy here in Western Washington.  Instead, I am writing this from the kitchen table, while looking out at the falling snow and simultaneously checking in on the Animal Adventure Park Giraffe Cam, where April the Giraffe has been in labor for 5 days!  Anyone else keeping watch with me? Seriously!  Is she even pregnant or is this just more “Fake News” I keep hearing about?  Lol!

Basic Steps for Repotting Seedlings

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. Be gentle!  Don’t tug or pull the tender plants from their flats or trays, instead use a butter knife, popsicle stick or something similar to coax the seedling from its container.
  4. If there is more than one seedling in a container, carefully separate them and repot individually.
  5. Place the seedling in a new pot, fill with soil and gently tap down the soil.
  6. Label the pot with the plant name.
  7. 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 will tell you to toss them and try again.  It seems like such a waste of time and resources to do that.  If you have seeds left over 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: two seasons ago, I had this happen to some squash plants.  A local master gardener told me to toss them and start over.  Another gardener suggested I repot them as an experiment.  I’m glad I did!  They did just fine, however, 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 as they grow taller.  Doing this will ensure they don’t get leggy.

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

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This post was shared on The Homesteader Hop

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Content and Photos by Misty Meadows Homestead and S.Lago © All Rights Reserved 

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