Welcome to my WTF Gardening series, where I take common gardening terms and explain them for those who are new to the world of plants. Find the entire WTF Gardening series here.
In this post, I’m talking about the term ‘leggy’. You might have heard this word being used to describe a very tall person (usually a woman), due to the fact that they have particularly long legs. Well, in a way, this description also applies to leggy plants.
“But plants don’t have legs!” you cry.
No, they don’t. You could call a plant’s roots its legs, but you would be kidding yourself.
In this situation, ‘legginess’ refers to a plant’s appearance when its stem and/or petioles (the bits that connect the leaves to the stem) become unusually long. It leaves the plant looking a bit weird and ugly, like it probably needs an intervention. If a plant expert comes to your house (it’s of course standard procedure for us to turn up at strangers’ houses to examine their plants) and calls your plant ‘leggy’, it would be wise to act fast to save your plant from death-by-bendy-stem. Or, in other words, your plant might become too weak to physically hold up its growth. It especially happens to seedlings.
Why do plants get leggy?
The most common cause of legginess in a plant or seedling is a lack of sunlight.
For example, if you’ve positioned your jade plant on a high shelf where the light from the nearest window only reaches it for a couple of hours per day, it’s likely to get leggy or “etiolated”. It will grow long, spindly shoots to try and reach the light, and these shoots will have fewer leaves because the plant won’t have enough energy to produce them all the way along its stem.
How do you save a leggy plant?
Most of the time, legginess won’t kill a plant or seedling, but it does need addressing. If left to its own devices for too long, the leggy plant’s stems might eventually become too weak to hold themselves upright, and they could bend at the weakest point and create a plant with a bent stem, or die off!
If you’ve managed to spot the legginess before it got to this stage, you can try one or both of the following solutions:
Move the plant to a sunnier position
Your plant is leggy because it’s low on light, so move it closer to a window (or outside, if the weather permits it). Rotate the plant or seedling regularly to maximise light and achieve balanced growth, especially as secondary shoots appear.
Pinch back new growth on mature plants
This sounds a little more complicated if you’re a beginner, but all ‘pinching back’ means is to literally pinch off the newest growth at the ends of the stems. On mature plants that have become leggy, this can be an option. It will encourage the plant to slow its upward growth, and start growing outwards to become fuller and bushier. Here’s a really simple, minute-long video explaining how to pinch back new growth:
I hope this helps you understand what legginess is! What would you like to see me cover next in my WTF Gardening series? Let me know in the comments section!
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook. You can also listen to The Plant Based Podcast with Michael and co-host Ellen-Mary on iTunes, Spotify and Google.