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April 11, 2010 1:47 PM   Subscribe

Help me, GardeningMeFi - is something wrong with my newly-germinated baby vegetables? Why are they so spindly but still healthy?

I've grown veg outdoors for a few years (in the UK), planting seed direct into the ground, with real success. This year I inherited a couple of plastic (unheated) propagator trays - just seed trays, a water dish and a clear lid - and thought I'd give them a try, despite having no knowledge of seedling growth or handling.

Germination has been really successful on a warm window sill - picture 1 (from the top; left tray - sweetheart cabbage, italian chicory rosso, perilla, french parsley, basil; right tray - italian beets, golden beets, spinach (and spring onions and more chicory only seeded today). All planted 2 weeks ago, germination over the last 7-10 days, slight ventilation gap, no base heat, windowsill gets full sun for 4 hours a day, and bright indirect light the rest, watered by misting daily if the compost surface is dry.

But - what's going on with the seedlings themselves? They're really leggy - particularly the cabbage and beets. Is this normal for seedlings in propagation? They've got very few roots yet (can't focus close enough on the phone) and I'm loathe to move them so soon, but they're falling over, lying in the condensation from the lid, and I'm sure they'll just rot if I just leave them.

And even if there's nothing wrong with them really: how long do people recommend leaving seedlings before moving them on to the next set of pots? I'd been assuming not until a) a good set of roots and b) 1-2 sets of true leaves. But at this rate mine will be about 6" long by then...

Does anyone know what's going on?
posted by cromagnon to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
yep, thats how they look...good job! turn the tray around (180 degrees) every few days and they'll grow straight up. (they are going sideways because they want to get to the sun, which they'll never get to because its 93 million miles away. Ha Ha! plants are stupid!) you might try pressing the dirt down around them a little bit...might be a little loose...
posted by sexyrobot at 1:59 PM on April 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: they're not getting enough light - that's the legginess, pretty much the only reason it happens - can you put them closer to the window, or put a mirror or other reflective surface on the non-light side?

also, do you have a fan with a low setting? this can help to strengthen & thicken the stems, especially if you can move it around a couple times a day

careful not to over-fertilize at this point as well

you can transplant sometime pretty soon - just use a light starter soil & be sure to drench them with water & keep them from direct sunlight for the first hour or so after you do
posted by jammy at 2:09 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ah - I realise now I forgot to say "I've been turning the trays round every few days so they don't get bent over towards the light" :)

The compost (a "John Innes #1") is exceptionally loose - I'd not packed it down at all: I guess I'd thought seedling sould do without the work, I guess - and they were surface-germinated. Maybe I'll start some more off in more compacted compost.
posted by cromagnon at 2:10 PM on April 11, 2010

FWIW, some root veg, especially carrots, don't like being transplanted, as once the tap root is damaged, it won't continue growing.

Also, try turning the trays more often, at least once a day. Otherwise, the seedlings have a few days to get stuck into their position. They'll naturally grow towards the light, but if they have a few days to grow into a single position, that's why they'll do. That's when they get leggy.
posted by Solomon at 2:21 PM on April 11, 2010

yeah, the soil should be firm, like a dense cake, to give the plant down gently with your should plant some beans, too...those really like to grow...i got some 'yard-long' beans a few years back, very tasty. as an aside, plant roots will grow through just about anything, even solid rock, as they produce concentrated acid (like Alien blood) in the cells at their tips...
posted by sexyrobot at 2:42 PM on April 11, 2010

Seconding everything jammy said. Not enough light makes plants leggy, and giving them more light and trying to force them to thicken up by using a fan are probably the two best routes.
posted by soma lkzx at 3:00 PM on April 11, 2010

Like everyone else is saying, they need more light. They're growing taller in search of light. Can you set them outside during the day?

The next time you transplant them should be into their forever homes. Do it when the garden is ready and the weather is favorable.
posted by thirteenkiller at 3:25 PM on April 11, 2010

Best answer: I think everyone else is correct in recommending that the seedlings need more light, but I think they could also benefit from some agitation from wind. Given how leggy the seedlings look in pictures, I would gradually introduce them to some moving air, either by putting them outside for an hour or two (and then working up to a full day of full sun) or putting a fan on them. In my experience, if you transplant them outside directly at this point, the stems will flop over and they won't do well.
posted by Lycaste at 4:11 PM on April 11, 2010

I might be wrong, but I think it's time to plant most of that stuff anyway. Certainly the spinach, cabbage and the beets.
posted by electroboy at 5:58 PM on April 11, 2010

More light, please!
posted by Lynsey at 9:37 PM on April 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks very much, all of you. They're going outside, top off, for a few more days, coming inside at night, and then into pots. I'll try and find somewhere else for them to germinate with more light next time, and have them outside again as soon as they're half an inch tall.
posted by cromagnon at 2:42 AM on April 12, 2010

but they're falling over, lying in the condensation from the lid

One bit of additional info: you shouldn't be using the lid any longer. The lid is only needed before the seeds sprout. Its job is to keep the humidity high so that the top of the soil, where the seeds are, doesn't dry out. Once the seeds have sprouted, get rid of the lid; otherwise, you're courting damping off problems.
posted by jon1270 at 3:59 AM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

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