Saving Leggy Tomato Seedlings


“Leggy” is probably a bit of an understatement for these seedlings.

I’ve spoken (probably ad nauseam as far as some are concerned) about my preference for growing my own seedlings. But sometimes, you get a present that while not ideal is still salvageable. In this case, it was several overgrown (as in VERY) tomato seedlings that were starting to blossom. In addition, these leggy tomato seedlings were badly root-bound. They were varieties I don’t have, however, and the seeds come from plants a local gardener has been growing and saving for years. In other words they are well-adapted to this area. I also got a few bell pepper seedlings that luckily were not nearly as far along as the tomatoes. So – not a variety I have, home-saved seed, well adapted to my locality and free. OK, time to make lemonade out of these tomato “lemons.”

There won’t be much left of it when I get through.

Since these tomato seedlings were so far along, drastic measure were necessary. First, I watered them well for several days to make sure all the plant cells were well hydrated. When I dug the planting holes, I dug them at least a foot deep. The soil was reasonably moist, but I wanted those roots to really start reaching, so I filled each hole with water and let it seep into the bottom and side of the planting holes.

This should make for a good reservoir of soil moisture.

When you have a root-bound plant, some gardeners advise cutting the sides of the soil to “open up the roots.” I disagree, as what you’re doing is disturbing the tiny feeder hairs. However, I did cut off the lower leaves on the stem so I could plant the seedlings deeply.

Poor root-bound seedling.

Tomatoes will root along a buried stem, and planting deeply gave these leggy tomatoes better support. Next, I trimmed back the tops enough to cut off the blossoms and give the plant fewer leaves – which meant the roots didn’t have to supply as much water during the next couple of weeks while the plant gets over transplant shock. Again, I watered the plants in well.

Bottom trimmed; deeply planted.

If I had had more space in this particular bed, I would have been able to salvage the tomatoes that were not just leggy but growing sideways. For these, you trim off all the leaves but the top three or four sets and bury the whole length of the tomato in a trench about a foot deep. If the plant has blossoms, you pinch them off. The top sets of leaves may lie sideways for a few days but they will quickly straighten up as they reach for the sun. I didn’t have the room, however, so I planted a couple of the slightly sideways plants and made sure I kept them as straight as possible in the hole while firming up the soil.

This is one that could have been trench-planted.

All tucked in; now I cross my fingers!

Now we’ll just have to wait and see whether these drastic measures result in lemonade…

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3 Responses to Saving Leggy Tomato Seedlings

  1. Lorelei says:

    thank you so much for publishing this and also with all these great pictures! I am actually going to try doing this with some gifted plants, even though I have never even grown tomatoes!! it’s tall order for me, but your pictures REALLY help a lot, thank you!!!

  2. Juli Day says:

    Great. I am going to lay my legging tomatoes in trenches leaving the original root system in tack. Feel like this should work for second season tomatos. Love your site.

    • Bee says:

      Thank you! At a bit over three weeks, the tomatoes I show in the post are now at least a foot taller and have produced lots of new branches; several are blossoming. Looks like a successful rescue mission.

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