What to Do When Your Indoor Plants Get Too Leggy

Written by Kelsey W.

A few months ago, the plant you brought home looked plush, beautiful, and healthy, but now it has long stringy arms rising from the pot, creating a strange “leggy” appearance. 

Why did your plant decide to stretch itself out so dramatically? Can you fix it? Do all plants eventually get leggy? Should you take some scissors to the legs and cut them?

Let’s explore what you can do when your indoor plants get too leggy and how to prevent the condition from occurring in the first place.

Why Do Plants Get Leggy Growth?

One of the common reasons indoor plants start to get leggy is because they’re not getting enough light. Plants are so amazing that they’ll twist and bend and stretch their limbs to get as close as possible to a light source, even if that means growing in a strange direction.

The plant probably won’t die, even if you leave it in its dark corner and allow it to continue growing toward the light. However, it might look a little strange or become fragile due to its skinny stems and lack of support from solid limbs.

Another reason plants get too leggy is that the soil has too much nitrogen. High levels of nitrogen can actually kill plants, as well as turn leaves yellow. However, a high level of nitrogen that’s not enough to kill the plant can encourage leggy growth. 

It’s important to consider, too, that some plants may get leggy naturally, even if they have the correct soil composition and the perfect amount of light. In other cases, some plants may become leggy not because their growing conditions are poor but because their growing conditions are so incredibly good that they grow too quickly due to a burst of plant food or an ideal environment.

Fortunately, it’s possible to save naturally leggy plants, as well as those that become leggy because of their growing conditions. It just takes a little investigation into why the plants are getting too long and making the right changes or snipping the right stems.

Complications from Leggy Growth

Other than appearance, one of the negative aspects of leggy growth in houseplants is that they become more fragile as their spindly legs grow. They may also produce fewer flowers because they don’t have enough strength, and they can also fall over or break when jostled or moved.

Another complication for your leggy plants is that they might not survive getting repotted, especially if they’re young and not well-established. They may become so fragile that even the necessary act of moving them to a better light source causes shock and an untimely death for your plant.

There’s no need to panic, though. With a careful touch and slow movements, you can give your plant the light and soil it needs without shocking it and causing it to lose the few leaves it might have growing on its long, spindly stems.

Getting Your Indoor Plants More Light

One of the most common reasons plants get leggy – especially indoor plants – is because they’re not getting enough light. Plants are smart and will grow toward a light source because they know it’s what they need to keep growing. Unfortunately, their instincts lead to a leggy, stretched appearance.

Often, we don’t notice our plants are getting leggy until they’re already obviously odd-looking. The sooner you see the plant is growing oddly, the sooner you can get it toward some sunlight. However, it’s essential that you move the plant slowly toward the light rather than shock it with a full dose of bright, direct sunlight from a window.

If the plant is in the middle of the room on a table, try moving it halfway to a window and leaving it there for about a week. Then, move it closer to the window, perhaps into an area where it can get healthy, indirect sunlight. If your plant is suited to direct sunlight, make sure its final place is in a sunny window.

Plants that are happy in direct sunlight while potted indoors include aloe vera, jade plants, snake plants, and geraniums. Plants that prefer indirect light (but still enough light!) include dieffenbachia, philodendrons, ferns, and pothos. Identifying your plant and the amount of sun it prefers can help you with proper placement.

Fixing Excess Nitrogen in Soil

Plants absorb nitrogen through the soil, so you can get a leggy plant and eventually see the leaves fall off if their soil is too nitrogen-rich. Too much nitrogen can cause explosive growth, which may cause your plant to reach an unnatural height before it has enough leaves and girth to support that height.

One of the easiest ways to reduce the nitrogen level in your soil is to add more soil to the pot or replant it with new soil that’s not high in nitrogen. Make sure you select a replacement potting soil that isn’t high in nitrogen. Nitrogen-rich soil is usually labeled as such, so just make sure to read the label on the soil before you purchase.

Dealing with Naturally Leggy Plants

One of the most common types of plants that can become leggy is succulents. They look adorable and plump sitting on a windowsill but start to appear extra leggy over time. A succulent growing at an elevated level with a long stem beneath it might not look as appealing as a shorter version. 

Fixing this issue requires just a few steps. You can cut the stem down to the height you prefer and replant it. Just make sure to give the stem a few days, or even a week, to scab over before you put it back into the soil with its lower stature.

You can also control naturally leggy plants by rotating them every few weeks. Plants will grow in the direction of light, but if you rotate them by 180 degrees or 90 degrees, you’ll change the direction they grow. Turning your plants can effectively slow down leggy growth.

Keeping an Eye on Extra Happy Plants

When you purchase a plant, it’s probably been kept happy and healthy in a greenhouse with the ideal growing conditions. Shortly before transporting the plants to a garden center, some growers will load their plants with an extra dose of fertilizer to keep them extra happy during their time on display at the garden center.

Unfortunately, the extra fertilizer can cause the plant to experience explosive growth for the first few months you own it. You may need to keep an eye on the plant after you’ve just purchased it to ensure it isn’t growing too fast. Cutting down on the feeding schedule for your plants should help slow their growth.

Can You Trim Leggy Plants?

What if you’ve allowed a plant to become excessively leggy? Even when you notice a plant getting leggy, you might not feel entirely confident cutting it back. Will cutting the plant harm it? Is it okay to trim a leggy plant?

The good news is the answer is yes. You can trim a leggy plant back, and the plant can actually grow stronger after the trimming. Yearly cutting can also encourage the plant to send out brand new shoots, creating a beautifully thick and lush plant. Trimming, pinching, and pruning are all helpful activities for eliminating leggy growth.

Start by pruning back the longest stem. You can cut right above the uppermost growth node, which should encourage the plant to create new growth at the side of the stem rather than continuously upward at the top. Remember to sterilize your cutting tool before starting the trim to discourage the spread of disease.

Can You Trim Plants Whenever You Want?

The best time to trim plants is at the start of their growing season. For most houseplants, the best time to begin cutting is in the late winter or early spring. If you have an indoor houseplant that flowers each year, try to trim it right after the plant has exited its first flowering cycle of the season.

If your plants are incredibly leggy but it’s not a convenient time to trim, cutting a few stems isn’t the end of the world. The plant should survive a small amount of trimming, even if the season isn’t ideal. You can also try to support the plant as much as possible until you reach late winter and can begin trimming.

A leggy plant isn’t the end of the world. Indoor potted plants are often some of the most resilient and un-killable plants you can grow. Try to identify the cause of your leggy plant growth and fix it by moving the plant, changing the soil, trimming the legs, or doing whatever the plant needs to start enjoying new, thick healthy growth.

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