Leggy seedling help

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

Hi gardeners! I have started plants from seed before, but I have never had this issue. These seedlings are only a few days old, but they are already looking like they are reaching for the light! Funny part is - they are very close to the light, as you can hopefully tell in the pics.

Should I attempt to cut off the tops of the cups? Any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

The seedlings are veggies (red and yellow onion, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, beets, etc..) oh, and melon.

Many thanks!

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Hobart, IN

You might try thinning out some of your seedlings in each cup to prevent shading-out. Have you changed your light tubes recently? They do get dimmer every year. Is the room too warm? That can spur some fast, leggy growth. Just some thoughts.

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

Ah-ha. We keep the house cool, so I have a heater next to the seedlings. Maybe it IS too warm. Once they germinate, do they really need as much warmth and humidity?

I will check the bulbs, too, or maybe just replace them...

Thinning out these little guys seems scary. I might really muck that up. :)

Thanks a million for the suggestions!

Hobart, IN

Hey, I'm no expert - just learning a little by trial and error. A lot of seedlings like lower temps once they've germinated, like in the 60's, but you'd have to do a little reading up on each type. Wouldn't the brassicas like lower temps since they're a cool weather crop? I know Territorial and Johnny's give that type of information at least in their paper catalogs - maybe online as well? As for thinning, I wouldn't try to actual pull the little seedlings out to thin. As hard as it may seem, I use a pair of cuticle or embroidery scissors to snip each one that I don't want off at the soil line, maybe keeping the shortest and sturdiest. If you wanted to save all of your seedlings, that would be way harder to do.

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

I will check that out. I hope it is the temperature, as that is an easy fix. :-/


Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

The veggies you mentioned above are all cool weather crops so need 68-70 to sprout. However, the problem isn't so much the temp, as they need thinning. Each little plant is fighting it companion for the light. If you have a small embroidery scissor, just cut some off at the soil line. If you don't, the stems will grow thin and won't be able to support the leaves.

When you plant several in a pot/cup space them instead of planting all in the center.

I agree with Cindy

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Cleaning tubes and reflectors can also help improve intensity.

If you replace the bulbs, there are higher-output tubes that will give brighter light. But they tend to cost more and be less efficient. I don't mean replacing T-12 with T-8 or T-5. I mean some T-12 tubes put out more lumens (are brighter) than other T-12 tubes.

I wish I could recall whether the "warm red" or "cool blue" colors encouraged elongation. My guess is that cool blue tubes would be a better choice - say two blues and one red.

Cindy said:
>> I use a pair of cuticle or embroidery scissors to snip each one that I don't want off at the soil line, maybe keeping the shortest and sturdiest.

I have some kind of tiny, cheap scissor. The jaws are only an inch or so long, and one blade has a notch or hook in it near the tip. That's great for grabbing one seedling stem and pulling it away from the others before I snip.

As far as I can tell online, it must have been a cat or bird nail scissor!



P.S. One way to get the stems sturdier is to have a small fan that blows on them. Intermittently would be ideal. Or just run it for a few minutes a few times per day.

But the high lips on those cups would shield them from "wind".

This message was edited Feb 4, 2014 5:43 PM

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Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

Rick, when stems are not sturdy, a fan will blow the stems to the side since they would not be strong enough to withstand the breeze.

Sunloving plants---flowers and veggies---need 16 hours of plant light per 24 hours. I always use a timer. I use tinfoil along the wall to bounce light back to the seedlings.

The tips on those cat scissors are too wide to fit inbetween the stems. You need scissors with a sharp point to get inbetween to nip unwanted stems.

This message was edited Feb 5, 2014 1:30 AM

Hobart, IN

Rick - I have a similar type of scissor that I use but it's for cutting sewing stitches and they're quite small but work great. Easier to select the stem I want to cut.
I forgot to mention the fan thing but it didn't appear that the seedlings were quite ready for that yet.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Good point about blowing tall seedlings over. I agree that any stress has to worked up to gradually (or the crop started over with seeds wider apart and/or being pricked out sooner.

>> The tips on those cat scissors are too wide to fit inbetween the stems.

I agree that you have to be able to slip the blades between the stems, whatever you use.

My limits seem be mostly short-sightedness and hand tremors. I can work the "hook" part into narrow gaps and push stems aside, then make sure that I've only captured the stems I want before snipping.

If I used sharp scissors like eye scissors, depth misjudgement or a tremor would cut where I didn't want to.

P.S. The few times I did sow in a seed flat and had to "prick out" and "untangle" densely packed seedlings, I found that it was often easier to lift out a small chunk with 2-3 root-tangled seedlings . I would set it on a plate and "tease" the root balls apart while they were lying down flat. Trying to pull or slice them out of the main flat was more damaging.

I have yet to accept emotionally that picking out is also a thinning step. i should expect to throw away some percentage of the smaller or more tangled seedlings.

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

I have lowered the temperature a few degrees, and already seen some improvement these past few days. Still, I will try the foil idea. Thx. :)

As for thinning, I am unsure of my ability to do this... Ha! But just so I understand before attempting... Should I remove entire seedlings? Or just gently cut their tops off?

Lesson learned about planting too many seeds in one hole. I suppose I was thinking the germination rate may not be as high as I would like. These little guys exceeded my expectations, AND are non-GMO. Worth the extra few bucks. :)

Thanks, all!

Hobart, IN

Unless you want to try to save every seedling using Rick's method (which I have done in the past), just snip off the unwanted seedling as close to the soil level as you can comfortably maneuver. The root system of the snipped seedlings will normally just shrivel away.

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

Thanks Cindy!

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

I wouldn't try to save any of the extra seedlings since they are growing so close together. Just snip at soil line or as close as you can so 1 or 2 can continue to grow undisturbed. I would allow 2 to grow to make sure you have at least one, then keep the one that shows the best growth and get rid of the other one.

You can't allow more than one to grow too long and expect both to be healthy. The bigger/older a seedling is the long it takes for it to become re-established after transplanting. Root will be intertwined and hard to seperate.

Durhamville, NY(Zone 5b)

It's not as hard to separate seedlings as one would think.

The way I do it is first saturate the soil with water. Next I carefully put my hand over the top of the pot with the seedlings between my finger. The fingers aren't touching the seedlings but holding the mix. I then turn the pot upside down and shake it, rap it or whatever I have to do to get the whole thing to fall out into my hand. At this point hopefully a lot of the soil will fall off. After setting the ball onto your table grab two seedling gently by a leaf on each one and start to shake the two plants away from the soil and root mass. I say shake but it's more vibrate. They should come apart easily with very little root damage. Sometimes it works better to grab more than two seedlings. The important thing is to NOT handle them by the stems.

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

the problem isn't seperating them. That is easy. I am talking about not disturbing the roots, which sets them back. In other words, you get rid of one to save one.

Durhamville, NY(Zone 5b)

I understand about disturbing the roots, but I've never had much set back with the plants listed. Beets are tougher, but I have transplanted them outside when small.

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

My melon seedlings (shown in photos, with the larger leaves) appear to be pretty healthy, so possibly able to withstand a procedure like you are describing, Doug... ? I might try it with one of those... luckily, I have planted enough, so that if I lose a few it won't hurt me too badly.

These are all very young seedlings, (These were all started on Jan. 26... so just 12 days old.)
...which in my opinion germinated very quickly... possibly too quickly - due to placing a heater at 72 degrees by the seedlings. Oops.

I wonder if I will even find many roots there at this early date.

Any thoughts on whether I should wait a bit longer?


Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

From my view, they look like they are holding up each other. If they were mine I would leave one, snip off the weaker ones, and sow more if need ed.

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

Ok, blomma... I am going to try that. :)

Here is a view of the melon seedlings. Hmm... Does it look like they might be trying to flower...?! Ugh.

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Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

No it is not a flower bud. The leaves you see are called cotyledons that will inflate with water as the seed germinates and pull the stem upward as the seedling's root grows ...Usually these first leaves die back since no longer needed.

What is emerging in the center are the true leaves.

Durhamville, NY(Zone 5b)

No that's the first set of true leaves starting to grow. It looks like you have multiple cups of melons. Why don't you snip a cup and transplant a cup. I've transplanted seedlings even when I didn't need to because I had enough. The more I do it, the better I get. I figure if I practice on ones that aren't critical then when there comes a time that I have to save as many transplants as I can, I'll be prepared.

This isn't me thinking Blomma is wrong and I'm right or vice versa. I read his posts thoroughly because the usually contain good information. It's just different styles of gardening and sometimes different goals. I've always run some kind of plant rehab ever since I was a small kid. That's part of my joy of gardening.

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

I did exactly that... I tried separating one of the melon plants, which actually went pretty well. I nearly had a heart attack doing it, but so far they look ok. Then I tried it on the beets. I will post pics below, but I think the beets are not happy. I will be surprised if they survive. Then again, stranger things have happened. :/

The beets looked so delicate, so if there were clumps of roots, I left those intact and re-planted that as a new plant. I figured it was still an improvement... Also, I noticed a couple stems bent in the process, so I assumed those were goners and snipped them at the soil level.

One question: should I now treat these as transplants, keeping them away from water and sunlight for a few days?

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

Melons, before and after
Beets, before and after

Thanks for all the help! :-)

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Durhamville, NY(Zone 5b)

They need moisture, but not too much. Don't let them dry out. Bright sun isn't good for them for the same reasons that too much or not enough water is bad. When you transplant a plant the root system is damages to some extent. This reduces the plants ability to take up water until it grows new root hairs. The reason you don't water too much is that the plant can only take up a limited amount of water. On the other hand it needs enough water because it can't take up water as well. Bright sunlight increases the photosynthesis which cause the plant to open the stoma on the back of the leaves. This in turn cause the plant to transpire more water, but if the remaining roots can't supply the water, the transplant will dry out.

Durhamville, NY(Zone 5b)

One more thing. What we call a beet seed is actually a seed pod with more than one seed in it with a couple of exceptions. That's why you have clumps of seedlings.

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

This should settle the question of first true leaves vs. cotyledon leaves.


As you can see, true leaves and cotyledon leaves look nowhere near alike. They store food until true leaves emerges.

This message was edited Feb 7, 2014 2:49 PM

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Wow, nice surgery!

Cindy said:
>> Unless you want to try to save every seedling using Rick's method (which I have done in the past),

If that was me-Rick, I wouldn't suggest trying to untangle those guys either. They are probably twined together even tighter underground than aboveground.

>> just snip off the unwanted seedling as close to the soil level as you can comfortably maneuver.

I agreed with that when I read it, but it looks like you are getting away with radical surgery.

>> I suppose I was thinking the germination rate may not be as high as I would like.

It seems to work very consistently for me.

When I expect low germination, I sow densely, and they ALL sprout.

When I expect high germination, I only sow 1 seed in most cells, and have very low germination.

Mother Nature has a "robust" sense of humor.

Northeast, WA(Zone 5a)

ambuzz, do you know how beet seeds grow? They burst and send out little seeds all around them, and that is probably why they are growing that way.

LOL, I just read Doug 9345 post right above blomma's last post. Saying the same thing.

Have you queried anything, google, how they grow and what to do with them. Beets are a root crop and you don't want a whole bunch growing in one spot underground. Think you need to use the scissors on them, but I have never grown them, so you need to find that out.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Doug said:
>> Why don't you snip a cup and transplant a cup.

I think that's the best answer to any gardening question. You can often get advice to do A or B or C. And there are people for whom A works well, people for whom B works well, and people who somehow manage to get away with doing C.

If you try a few things, you'll find out what works for YOU.

What with soil variables, nutrients, soil life, climate, sun angle, daylength, irrigation, seed varieties and the infinite variety of techniques and goals or desires, gardening is complicated enough that there ARE many good answers to the same question.

it sounds like you got past the "naked roots - heart attack!" issue that still afflicts me. If your available room for seed-starting is tight but you have room and need for lots of potted-up seedlings, you may stay with "sow densely and prick out early".

I don't have much room for potted-up seedlings, so i tend to sow 1-3 seeds in each cell, cut down the extras, and pot up when I really NEED to.

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

Jnett~ I do not know a lot about beets. I have a toddler so my time for researching individual plants is limited - :-/ I will try to make some time, and spread those seedlings out!

Wow, thanks for the link about cotyledons vs. true leaves. Very interesting... I did take a course in botany many years ago - but I have forgotten a lot!

Thank you Rick, for your response! I agree with everything you said. There are a ton of variables, as you said, so it is very difficult to pinpoint what the issue is. Yes... It is like performing radical surgery. So, you don't think they look bad, ey? If these survive, I will have a little more confidence to do this to my other beets. They are the ones that really need it the most, although I do have Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli that are in need of "surgery" as well. I have a little 4-shelf greenhouse, and I have outgrown it already, which I expected I might, and I do plan to expand as I can and need to! We bought 5 acres and I plan to make the most of it, at least within the constraints of my budget.

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

Actually come to think of it, I have never heard of anyone starting beets indoors since they are a root crop. They aren't like tomatoes that gives lots of fruit.

Carrots, beets and onions I always sower straight in the garden since the all like cooler temps.

Northeast, WA(Zone 5a)

Ambuzz, have you ever grown Brussels Sprouts? Have you seen them on a stalk? They are really interesting. So much fun. One think to remember about them, is that you don't pick them until after the first frost hits them. That sets the flavor.

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

Ohhh, Jnette... Thanks for the tip! Yum. We will see if I can wait that long. I'm looking forward to Brussels sprouts sautéed with garlic.

I sowed these beets indoors because of the instructions that came w/ seeds. They actually don't look bad, even though they need more thinning!

Northeast, WA(Zone 5a)

Well, to thin, just clip them off with tiny scissors. Don't pull them.

Lake Stevens, WA(Zone 8a)

Ambuzz- A long time ago a friend gave me a bunch of Brussel Sprout stalks harvested after the first frost. I lived in NY at the time, we kept them on the porch that was usually barely above freezing, and sometimes below. We picked the sprouts off for months that winter, and ate them up before they went bad!

Seneca, MO(Zone 5b)

How funny, mlmlakestevens! :)

Northeast, WA(Zone 5a)

I can believe it and they sound so good. I had a beautiful crop years ago in Seattle and when I picked them, I saw a tiny hole in the back of every one. I thought it was a worm of some kind but I never cut into any of them to see. Now I am sorry I didn't.

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