The Cure for Leggy Seedling Syndrome

Seedlings leggyJill Henderson ~ Show Me Oz

It is the dead of winter here in Oz, but my thoughts are already in the garden and on starting seedlings indoors.  Truth is, I used to dread the days of starting seedlings indoors because no matter how hard I tried, eventually they would get long and lanky and fall over. What a waste of time and energy! But with one simple modification and a couple of cheap household items, I found a simple cure for the dreaded “leggy seedling syndrome”.

After a little thought and a few tries using various materials I had on hand, I finally settled on a cheap and simple solution that not only magnifies the amount of sunlight that the seedlings will get but evenly distributes it to all parts of the plant at the same time.

My windowsills are 6” deep because the house was built with 2×6 lumber, so I didn’t have to widen the sill.  My seeds were planted in a long starter cell with 2” pots two-rows wide. I got these for free at a seed swap, but they can be purchased online or ordered from your local nursery.

After sowing the seeds, I covered the cells with plastic grocery bags and kept them on the top of the refrigerator until they began to germinate. As soon as most of the pots in the cells had signs of seedlings germinating I moved them to the windowsill. Do not wait for all the seedlings to germinate or open their first leaves to move the starter cells or pots to the window. It’s amazing how fast these little guys start to reach for the sun.

Seedling Window Set Up (10)

I made two sets of “shelves” to fit into my kitchen and dining room windows. Both are simple rectangular boxes made of 1” x 6” pine boards with one or two shelves. They were cut with a handsaw and held together with finishing nails and glue. The boards were measures so that they would fit snugly into their respective window frames.

I actually made my shelves the year before I started this project to hold my house plants but they worked exceptionally well for the multiple seedling trays and “solar reflectors” I wanted to use for my seedlings.

If your sills are only 4” wide, you can widen them if needed by building a simple box frame using wider lumber. Just be sure to securely fasten it to the window frame with small nails. Just be sure to leave the nail head sticking out a little from the lumber for easy removal later on.

The solar reflectors are simply long sheets of aluminum foil with the shiny side facing the window. The foil is folded over a double length of dental floss (which is very sturdy and doesn’t stretch) and stretched between the shelf frame and held in place with two push pins.

Seedling Window Set Up (7)

The key to getting an even distribution of sunlight is to ensure the foil is tall enough to cover the entire height of the plants – from the soil to the tops of the leaves as tall as they will be in six to eight weeks – and wide enough to cover all vegetation from end to end. Any plants that are not in the “reflection zone” will lean and become leggy. I also intentionally left a gap at the top of the shelf and the bottoms of the pots exposed to both warm the covered area and increase air circulation to prevent mold and damping off.

Before settling on the aluminum foil, I had tried mirrors and several other reflective metals but the foil gave me both flexibility and excellent reflectivity. Plus, I already had a big roll in my kitchen drawer. Silvery space blankets or folding car sun shields would also work well.  Heavy-duty foil is easier to work with than cheap thin foil, which tends to crease and tear too easily.

When I needed to spend time working with the seedlings or remove the trays for watering or transplanting, I simply used a little piece of duct tape to hold up the sides until I was finished.

At first, I lifted the foil at night thinking the seedlings would be too cold next to the window. But I soon realized that they would actually lean in towards the lights inside the house at night if I did that. Also, by keeping the reflectors down at night, the cooler conditions actually produced stockier seedlings.

Seedling Window Set Up (11)

I left my seedlings in the solar window reflector set-up until I was ready to start hardening them off outside – about 10 weeks after planting. Play your timing by ear and know that it may take a little longer or a little shorter than that to get your windowsill seedlings ready for that step.

So, if you’ve been struggling with leggy seedling syndrome, I strongly urge you to try the solar reflector method I’ve developed using nothing more than tinfoil and tape or come up with your own. Either way, please be sure to share your success stories and photos!

Until next time, Happy Gardening!

Show Me Oz | Living and loving life in the Ozarks!
Gardening, foraging, herbs, homesteading, slow food, nature, and more!
© Jill Henderson

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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz  Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons and Illuminati Agenda 21 can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a featured columnist for Acres USA and a contributing author to Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.

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7 responses to “The Cure for Leggy Seedling Syndrome

  1. I love your article Jill, you are an expert in gardening and seeds.

  2. Thank you so much, Laura!

  3. Love this article, Think spring!

  4. I haven’t tried it yet but I heard that having a fan blowing to create a breeze helps strengthen them. In the garden they’d get a breeze, so makes sense. Thoughts?

    • You are absolutely right. Using a fan mimics the wind and provokes the stems to grow thicker and stronger. Fans can also help prevent fungal diseases from cropping up in very moist environments. Use the lowest possible setting so as not to overwhelm small seedlings and if the fan rotates back and forth, all the better. Make sure the fans get turned off for four to six hours a day (perhaps at night) so as not to overwhelm seedlings. Fans can also dry out leaves and soil very rapidly in low humidity conditions, so it’s important to keep an eye on that.

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