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6 leggy seedling tips for home gardeners

More and more people throughout the country are jumping on board the grow-your-own food wagon. People see the empty shelves in their grocery stores. They also feel the lightness of the wallet in their pocket because food prices are so high, and there’s barely any cash left. We could go on and on (and on and on) about the benefits of growing your own produce. It’s an endeavor that is good for your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. If you have braved the home-gardening wilderness this year by germinating seeds indoors, you might wind up dealing with a problem known as “leggy seedling” trouble.

Even if you harden them off (which we’ll talk more about later on in this post) plants go into a sort of temporary shock when you transplant them from indoors into your garden. In order to thrive, they need to have thick, sturdy stocks. If you’ve been seeing leggy seedling stems on the plants you recently germinated indoors, it’s time to kick six helpful tips into gear, before it’s too late.

Leggy seedling tip number 1

When you place teeny weeny seeds into 1/8 inch of potting soil in the hope of getting them to germinate, conditions must be just right. Germination requires several things. Seeds need heat (as in, 75 degree soil temperature at all times), air moisture (created by covering them with a plastic lid) and moist soil. You should keep a spray bottle nearby so that you can check the soil often and spritz as needed. It can take a couple weeks for seeds to germinate.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to be on the edge of despair, thinking your tiny little crop has failed, only to wake up the next day to see sprigs bursting through the soil! To prevent a leggy seedling problem, it’s imperative that you adjust the growing conditions as soon as your seeds germinate! This means that you remove the cover. You can also pull back on the heat (if your house is warm). If you keep your heating pads or space heaters, or whatever you’ve used to germinate, on after they’ve popped through the soil, they’ll go into overdrive. Overdrive causes a leggy seedling catastrophe.

Prevent a leggy seedling problem with light

Next, you’ll want to add lots and lots (and lots and lots) of light. In fact, your seedlings need light for up to 16 or 18 hours per day. And, while natural light shining through a window is great, it is NOT enough. Read that again. Your seedlings need an artificial grow light, too. When you go to sleep at night, you can “put your plants to sleep” too by turning off the lights and pulling the window shades down. But, as soon as you wake up in the morning, give your seedlings light again!

Feed your growing seedlings

If you think in terms of human beings, particularly children, you’ll understand why it’s important to feed your seedlings. When people are malnourished, they become gaunt (pale) and thin and weak. A leggy seedling issue suggests that your plants aren’t getting enough nutrition to grow thick and sturdy. Remember, however, that they are young, and too much fertilizer can burn their tender roots. Research what types of food are best for young vegetable seedlings. (I use worm castings. Some people think that’s even too strong and use a worm casting tea, instead.) In addition to fertilizer, make sure your plants are receiving enough water, which is also nourishment because they’ll die without it.

It takes a lot of time and effort to help plants survive from seed to harvest. If you forget to water a young seedling even for one day, it might be too late to save it. Some plants, such as tomatoes, need more water than others, such as peppers. This is basically because peppers grow more slowly than tomatoes.

Speaking of growing, don’t forget to pot up

If you have a leggy seedling problem, it might be because you’ve kept your plants in a small cup for too long. They need room to grow. A small egg carton cup isn’t deep enough for a plant that has gotten its cotyledons (first “false” leaves). And, it’s definitely too small of a space for a plant that has sprouted its first set of “true” leaves. Sometimes, you can get away with going straight from egg carton to red solo cup when a plant has its first true leaves. If they’re looking stressed or are developing a leggy seedling problem, try potting up.

Even young plants can be hardened off

As promised at the beginning of this post, we need to talk a little about hardening off your plants, which is another remedy for a leggy seedling problem. If your outdoor temperatures are in the 60s or above, take your plants outside for hours every day. In fact, you don’t need to bring them back in (until evening) unless the weather becomes inclement (too windy, cold or rainy). Make sure you place your seedlings in a protected area, not in direct sunlight. Underneath a table on your deck, under an umbrella or in a shady spot are all good choices. The natural light and slight breeze and air circulation help remedy a leggy seedling problem because it stimulates the plant to grow strong and sturdy.

You can mimic a gentle breeze indoors, as well, by using a small desktop fan or a ceiling fan that you’ve turned on medium speed or high, if it’s not too close to your seedlings. When you begin hardening off your plants, just don’t forget to bring them back indoors at night, especially if you live in a growing zone similar to Pennsylvania, where spring time nights can still be quite cold!

Are you planning a vegetable garden, this year? If you implement these six tips to prevent or resolve a leggy seedling problem, your plants have a good chance of making it! Proper amounts of water, fertilizer, light and natural outdoor exposure will make your plants robust! And, before you know it, you’ll be carting them off to transplant into your garden!

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