How to Fix Leggy Seedlings or The Art of Transplanting
Leggy seedlings - they happen to the best of us! Have you dealt with plants that become leggy? This is when your newly planted seeds have super thin, long, and spindly. It is caused by a lack of light or light that is too weak, causing the plant to reach and reach for the sun. There are plenty of ways to prevent this like rotating your seed trays, placing them in sunny windows throughout the day, or providing a light source like grow lights. But what happens if you can’t do that? For me, leggy transplants tend to happen to my earliest starts, the seeds that I have to plant in early to mid February.
There is a way to fix leggy transplants! Read on to learn more.
Step One: Determining Next Actions
You’ve planted your initial seeds, and they turned out long and leggy. What now? First thing is first, what did you initially plant them in? Where you transplant the starts next is determined by what you started with. The rule is you always wanted to transplant into a larger pot if possible! For the plants used in these photos, Rainbow Swiss Chard, I planted them in an open tray scattered organically. They are not exactly what I would determine as “leggy” as they could be much worse, but they cannot continue to grow in this tray and be successfully transplanted out into the field in this state. I don’t necessarily need them to be incredibly large plants either, so I decided to move them from a flat open tray to a 72-cell pack tray. For other plants that I would like larger, I will transplant immediately from the open tray to a 4-inch pot. You could also transplant leggy plants from a 72-cell to a 4-inch pot. Again, it depends on where you began. My rules tend to be that plants that are not in the seed trays for very long can stay in a 72-cell (chard, lettuce, scallions) and plants that need lots of time to grow and require strength (tomatoes, peppers, cabbage) can be started/transplanted to a pot.
step two: gather supplies
The supplies needed for transplanting are incredibly similar to what you need for seed starting. I learned a few tricks several years ago from an Amish woman who runs a small greenhouse in the area on how this process is done. She also gave me the realization that I don’t need any fancy tools necessarily to get the job done. For me, the only tool I really need to transplant is a pencil!
Trays, cell packs, or pots
Seed starting soil or potting soil (use something with enough nutrients packed in to last your plants until you move them outside)
Pencil (this will be your main tool to move those plants!)
Watering can or spray bottle
step three: create space
Fill your cell packs or pots with a soilless medium for seedlings. Make sure to tamp down the soil tightly so that when you go to transplant your plants outside the soil doesn’t fall off around the roots. You want it to be tightly packed!
Water the soil before putting the plants in. This removes a step later on and also is less stressful on the plant putting a huge dousing of water over the top of it, essentially burying the newly settled plant.
Next, take a pencil and make one deep hole in your soil, enough to fit the entire length of the leggy stem you will be placing in the pot.
step four: remove the plant
Once your soil is prepped, it’s time to remove the plants. This is most nerve-wracking part of the entire process so be careful but do not worry too much about it!
Very carefully, you want to pull the seedlings out of the soil while keeping the tiny roots in tact. It helps if you loosen the soil around the plant a little with your finger, and typically the soil is not that tight or deep so pulling out the plant is not that difficult. I do occasionally have a plant that I pull and separate from the roots. This is okay! Just try again with a new plant. You want the roots to look like the above photo; you can see that they may have been ripped or split a bit, and that is okay. As long as there are some roots still attached to the plant you have a good chance that it will take. No roots? No growth!
step five: push into the soil
Once the plant has been successfully removed, place it into the little hole you created in the new pot. Most often, depending on the size of plant and root, it will not just fall into place in the hole. You will have to help a bit. You can do this with your finger or the eraser end of the pencil; I typically use the pencil.
Gently push the roots into the hole and continue to guide the plant down into the soil. Be careful not to break the plant’s spindly stem while doing this. Because seed starting medium is so soft, it is usually fairly easy to do this without harming the plant.
step six: tuck them in
Tuck your little babies in! With your fingers push the soil around the base of the plant. Your goal to fix legginess is to bury the plant up to their first set of leaves. This is also what you would do outdoors with a transplant from anywhere like the local greenhouse! Burying a plant up to its first set of leaves is training it to become more sturdy. Once tucked, you can water if you didn’t beforehand or else just place back in a sunny spot. Make sure the plant is getting enough light so that you don’t have a problem with legginess again!
If all is well, your plants should continue to grow healthy and strong. Continue to water and care for them as normal and watch them grow. I have a lot of transplanting to get to myself over here at the farm! This time of year is always the busiest for me, especially now that we have entered April. I hope that you are having a blast this year in your own gardening endeavors. Happy (trans)planting!