Stick ‘em up! What to do when sproutlings reach for the sky!

March 15, 2012 — Leave a comment

Seeds waiting to sproutOne of my first attempts at starting my vegetable plants from seeds was a miserable failure. Although some of them were salvageable, those mini-greenhouses you get from the big box stores are not as simple as the cartons make you think.

When seedlings germinate, the first thing they do to reach for the sky. Or in other words, they seek out light. If they are not within reach of a viable light source, especially indoors, they will spend all of the nutrients in the seed leaves (their reserve food) and spiral toward the sun. The unfortunate side effect of this dilemma is that they basically become sprouts for you to toss on your salad. When they reach for the sun indoors, they are not likely to find it. Outdoors, the sun’s rays are powerful enough to saturate the sproutling with all of its needs.This result is called “leggy seedlings”.

  1. How do you prevent leggy seedlings?
  2. Germinate them in a humidity dome, mini-greenhouse, or even a plastic container leftover from the grocery store.
  3. Make sure they have plenty of drainage and a sterile soil solution.
  4. Keep an eye on your seeds daily, especially if you are using a heat source on the bottom. (Heat sources speed germination up, I love it!)
  5. When the seeds sprout, move them to a light source. Make sure the light source is 1-2 inches above the seedling. Using heat lamps are okay if you have the right wattage bulb. But check on the soil frequently because it will dry out. If you leave them in the dome for a short time, make sure the light source is 2-4 inches above the dome.
  6. Depending on the size of the planter and the medium you chose for germination, you may want to transplant your sproutling to a cozier setting. Don’t worry, you can tug on the little seed leaves and use a pencil to prod the plant from underneath and cause minimal shock to the roots. If the tap-root is too long for its new home, snip half of it off. It will live!

Now that you know how to avoid the problem, what do you do if it is too late for your little guys? Well, you can do a few things to attempt salvaging them:

  1. Place them near a fan with a breeze. This will simulate wind, help them to stop growing up, and hopefully grow out. This will also strengthen the stem and the roots. Remember, you should do this with all sproutlings/seedlings, not just leggy ones.
  2. Re-pot them into a bigger pot and more planting medium. When you do this, bury as much of the leggy stem as you can. This will give it strength, prevent falling over, and it will develop more roots  to suck up more nutrients.
  3. Throw them away or toss them into your salad. Yup, toss them bad boys in their, add some ranch, and enjoy!

There you have it. A crash course in preventing and fixing leggy seedlings. We like to call them sproutlings, they aren’t really seedlings until they get some seniority under their belts.

Stay tuned, in a few days, I will show you a quaint little homemade video of how to transplant seedlings before they get their “true leaves.” I like to call it “Grounding your seedlings.”

Happy Gardening!



A husband, father, social worker, and disciple of Jesus Christ, James has been Square Foot Gardening since 2011. Being an avid row-gardener and desiring to become more self-sufficient for his family's needs, the Square Foot Method has become his default way of raising produce. A certified instructor with the Square Foot Gardening Foundation, James educates through introductory and hands-on workshops for the communities of Southeastern Michigan.

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