Mother Earth Gardener

Heirloom Expert: Seed-Starting Troubles

I’ve only been gardening seriously for a few seasons and I’m having trouble starting seeds. They sprout on the windowsill, but then get tall and skinny, falling over in just a couple weeks. What am I doing wrong? — Diana from Oklahoma

That’s easy, Diana; those little sprouts need more light. I’ve seen gardeners be successful using a big, south-facing window as a light source for seedlings, but it depends on how much sun they receive.

A better bet is to use an artificial lighting source. Being cheap, my favorite are 4-foot fluorescent shop lights. The standard bulbs are fine for growing seedlings for a few months. Grow lights are better if something is meant to flower.

I’m lucky enough to have an unheated greenhouse now; but when I started all my seeds in the basement under the shop light, I let them run 24 hours a day. Some gardeners like to put the lights on a timer for 14-18 hours. It’s up to you.

Replacing the bulbs annually is a good idea as the light levels drop off after a while. We usually can’t tell the difference, but the plants can.

Bright light will make the plants nice and stocky, and they’ll thrive with a little organic liquid fertilizer. Wait until the seedlings get their true leaves, start at half strength once a week and then move up to full strength as the plants grow.

One other little tip: running an oscillating fan for several hours a day helps the plants grow stronger and will also work to prevent diseases.

Good luck!

Doug is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Backyard Gardener ( and co-host of The Organic Gardeners radio program on KDKA.

  • Published on Sep 14, 2016
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