Planting Etiolated Tomatoes

This year, I am pretty certain that I have ruined my tomatoes.  To say I am disappointed is an understatement.  I am not really sure what went wrong. I created a grow center in my mudroom out of a metal shelving system and florescent grow lights.  I kept the lights just a couple of inches above the plants.  However, in spite of my care, everything went terribly wrong.

My tomato seedlings under the expensive grow lights that apparently weren't worth what I spent on them

My tomato seedlings under the expensive grow lights that apparently weren’t worth what I spent on them

Now don’t get me wrong.  Its not like the plants didn’t grow.  No, they grew and grew and grew.  In all honesty, I knew something was wrong about 30 days into it.  They were just too tall.  I thought they were growing so fast because of the expensive “grow lights” I bought for the fluorescent fixtures.  Boy was I ever wrong.  Looks like my expensive grow lights have left me with a whole bunch of etiolated tomatoes.

According to Wikipedia, “etiolation (pronounced /iːtɪəˈleɪʃən/) is a process in flowering plants grown in partial or complete absence of light.[1] It is characterized by long, weak stems; smaller, sparser leaves due to longer internodes; and a pale yellow color (chlorosis).”

This is what a seriousllt etiolated tomato plant looks like

This is what a seriously etiolated tomato plant looks like

What all this means is my “grow lights” were evidently not producing the right wavelengths required by the tomatoes to grow correctly.  We all know that plants need light.  However, what a lot of us don’t know is light is really a pretty complex thing.  Light comes at you and your plants in waves.  Some of these waves are long and some are VERY short.  Different plants respond to different wavelengths.  So, even though my expensive grow lights provided a lot of light, it wasn’t the right light.

Technically speaking, etiolation causes a lengthening of the internodes of the plant.  This makes their branches weak.  However, the really bad thing (as far as I am concerned) is that it does not allow the plants to properly develop the chlorophyll need for photosynthesis.

This lack of chlorophyll thing bit me when I set the plants out to “harden off”.  Since their chloroplasts weren’t fully formed, they got a pretty bad burn pretty quickly.  This “hardening” almost immediately killed about a third of my 58 plants.

I nursed the plants along and continued hardening.  However, they were hurting.  I was really afraid I was going to lose them all.  In order to try and save some of them , I decided to do the only thing I could think of to salvage some of my plants – I planted them sideways!

The long holes I dug to plant my etiolated tomatoes

The long holes I dug to plant my etiolated tomatoes

That’s right, I dug a big old long hole and buried almost all of my etiolated plants.  I left about 8” of stem and leaves sticking up.  Hopefully, they will quickly develop their weak little chloroplasts and they will start growing normally toward the sun.

Planting the entire plant in the long hole

Planting the entire plant in the long hole

I was able to bury my plants because tomatoes have the ability to grow roots anywhere along their stem.  In fact, even if you plant healthy tomato plants, it is a good idea to bury them deeper than they were in their container.  By planting them deep, the buried stem will produce more roots that will in turn help produce a bigger, healthier plant.

One of my poor old etiolated, sunburned tomatoes after transplanting to the garden.

One of my poor old etiolated, sunburned tomatoes after transplanting to the garden.

Right now I am hopeful that I will be able to salvage some of my seedlings.  However, I have been wrong before.  If things don’t go my way over the next week I will be at my local garden center fighting for plants with all of the other last minute tomato gardeners.  Wish me luck!

13 thoughts on “Planting Etiolated Tomatoes

    • Not yet. A friend of mine that has done it before says he uses normal flourescents. However, he said he lets the seeds germinate under normal light on his windosill and then puts them under the grow lights until they are 6″-8″. I guess I will try that. The funny thing is i grew marigolds and petunias under the same lights and they have no issues.

  1. I feel your pain, Jay! If it’s any consolation I have grown many leggy tomatoes and always plant them sideways – somehow they seem to overcome our best intentions. I bet yours recover and do just fine. I agree with your friend that standard shop lights work well. I use a warm light (red spectrum) and a cool light (blue spectrum), but I try to get plants outside and into dappled, natural light as soon as the weather is suitable. Be sure to post a progress report on your etiolated tomatoes – I’ll be curious to know how they turn out.

    • Thanks for the encouragement Patty. I planted 20 and 6 had survived. then, last night we got hit with a pretty decent little hail storm. Can’t wait to get back today and see if anything made it.

    • I didn’t use heat mats so I don’t think that is it. The door to the outside is half glass and I am wondering if they weren’t stretching for the natural light

  2. Try the 6500K tubes. They give the best light for growing. You can get them at a Big Box store. Just look on the carton to be sure it is the 6500K spectrum.

    • I will never know. About a week after planting we got a hail storm that literally beat them into the ground. Had to go out and buy plants. very disappointing.

  3. I planted tomato seeds this summer and grew them indoors. I hardened them off and planted them in mid August. They’ve had regular waterings. They are still alive. However, they are not growing. A friend mentioned that the UV protection in windows likely stunted their growth somehow. I have very limited space, so if they’re not going to rally, I’d like to dig them up and use their space for something productive. I revisited this post to see if I could gain any useful information, but it sounds like our problems are different since you said your plants grew quite tall. I’d welcome any advice or thoughts you have. I’m in Austin. Thanks for such a wonderful website!

    • Hey Sara. If your tomatoes aren’t two or three feet tall by now they probably won’t have time to produce much before the first frost. Without seeing them it is hard to say exactly, but sounds like you might be better off pulling them up and replacing them with some sort of brassica. Broccoli is my favorite, then cauliflower. However cabbage is awful pretty and brussel sprouts are just fun. It’s also a great time to plant sugar snap peas.

      • Thanks for the advice! The tomatoes are only a couple inches tall and have been for a couple months now, so I don’t think they’re going to make it.

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