Leggy ZZ Plant a.k.a. Zamioculcas zamiifolia leggy and leaning - Here's why and How you can Fix It!

Leggy Plants: What Does It Mean When a Plant Is Leggy?

You were proud of the growth of your plant, but a friend came by and said they thought the plant looked leggy. If you want to know what that means and how to fix it, then today’s post is for you. What is a leggy plant?

A leggy plant is a plant that grows long, spindly stems, usually with few leaves, that are outstretched towards the nearest light source. Plants become leggy from a lack of light (natural or artificial). By pruning the leggy stems and improving the plant’s lighting, a leggy plant is able to grow normally again.

In this guide to leggy indoor plants, I’ll provide all the information you need to know to identify and combat legginess, so make sure you check it out! 

What Does It Mean When a Plant Is Leggy?

There’s a misconception among some plant lovers, that all plant growth is good growth. When the growth is leggy, what you’re seeing is a plant that’s not being given the proper amount of light.

Legginess is indeed growth, but it’s growth not because your plant is healthy, but because it’s not receiving enough light so it’s stretching toward whatever light source is the closest.

What Does A Leggy Plant Look Like?

This is a picture of my leggy ZZ Plant’s stem using its energy to reach toward the light instead of producing leaves in proportionment spacing along its stretched-out stem.

Note the arrows pointing at the space along the stem where growth towards light was prioritized over leaf growth.

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

How To Tell Leggy Plant Growth Apart From Healthy Plant Growth

Long, Gradually Thinner Stems

Is the only pronounced area of growth from your indoor plant the stems? If so, that’s something to pay attention to, especially if yours isn’t supposed to be a vining plant.

On a leggy indoor plant, you’ll notice that the stems are longer than usual. You might have a few stems on your plant that are several inches longer than the norm. 

These stems are very skinny, and they look weak too. You feel like if you handled the plant wrong, the stems would come right off.

A leggy plant’s stems gradually taper off, becoming paper-thin near the tips. The distance between the leaves on the stem becomes more and more spread out as the stem outpaces the growth of the leaves on itself.

The plant puts all of its energy into its stems being able to reach the light as soon as possible.

Few Leaves

Another giveaway that your plant isn’t merely growing but has become leggy is the absence of leaves. 

Sure, you might see a few here and there, but considering how long the stems have gotten, you would have thought the foliage would have been fuller.

I’ll talk more in the next section about why plants become leggy, but as a hint, it’s due to the absence of something a plant deems critical.

Your plant is deficient and so it has less energy. It can’t produce new leaves to the same extent that a healthy plant could, so your plant goes without. 

Whatever leaves the plant does have is a miracle. 

Uneven Growth

A plant can be leggy throughout or only more on one side. That all depends on the conditions you’re keeping it in. 

Even if the entire plant is leggy, you might see some areas that grow longer than others. 

Sparse Areas and Overall Unkemptness 

Take a few steps back and look at your leggy plant. Compare it to a plant that’s healthy.

That plant probably looks full, right? It has no gaps and no sparse areas because it’s grown normally. 

Now look at your leggy plant again. It will undoubtedly have sparse areas due to the lack of leaves. The unevenness will make the plant look unkempt.

The best way to liken a leggy plant is to an overgrown haircut. After a while, your hair looks uneven and has split ends every which way.

It doesn’t look healthy or fresh, and neither does your leggy plant. 

What Causes a Plant to Become Leggy?

Why is it that some of your indoor plants are leggy but others are growing just fine? Did you accidentally buy a bum plant from the store?

No, it’s not that, as a leggy plant wouldn’t sell. Rather, it’s a care mistake caused by a lack of sunlight or artificial light.

All plants need light to survive. A plant can’t discern between a grow light and the real sun, so it doesn’t matter which it has, just that the plant is getting the right amount of light.

Not all indoor plants need the same type of light. Let’s go over the different types of light that plants generally thrive in.

  • Bright, indirect light: This is a popular type of light among indoor plants. Bright, indirect light is sunlight or artificial light that passes through a medium, usually a curtain. The curtain prevents direct sunlight from burning the plant. 
  • Dappled light: Some plants that grow in rainforests or other heavily forested environments do best with dappled light. Dappled light refers to a type of overhead light that a larger plant provides to a smaller plant such as your indoor plant. Light passes through the natural openings of the larger plant’s foliage, bathing the smaller plant in some light but not too much.
  • Bright light: Few indoor plants prefer bright light, usually succulents and other species that grow in arid conditions. Bright light is unfiltered sunlight without the need for a curtain. It can be strong and harsh and is usually the enemy of most indoor plant species.

Besides the right type of light, an indoor plant also needs light for a required amount of time per day.

Many plants need light for six to eight hours, but some require 10 to 12 hours per day and some species more time still.

This is when you’ll get into using artificial light. In the wintertime, when sunlight is sparse, artificial light makes up for the lack of sunlight.

Why do plants need light? It’s a critical ingredient of photosynthesis along with water and carbon dioxide.

That’s why your plant is failing to produce leaves. As I said before, the plant lacks energy and so it can’t allocate any extra energy to growing leaves.

Right now, your plant is doing whatever it can to survive without being able to successfully photosynthesize due to its lack of light. The energy it does have must be used on primary functions.

Can a Lack of Pruning Cause Legginess?

While sunlight, or a lack thereof, is the primary cause of indoor plant legginess, it’s not always the sole cause.

In some instances, failing to prune a plant can also produce legginess. 

You should prune your plant at least once per year, trimming back long stems and other unsightly overgrowths. 

If you forget, you run out of time, or you simply don’t prune, then your plant will eventually enter its next growing season not having been pruned.

The plant will continue to grow, of course. Those long and unsightly stems will become even longer and more unsightly as the growing season continues.

This produces a leggy look in your indoor plant even though it’s not necessarily being deprived of sunlight. 

What Do You Do If Your Plant Is Leggy? Do You Have to Do Anything?

You hate to say it, but you think a couple of your plants are leggy. You hadn’t realized that you goofed the plant’s light requirements, but that must have been what happened. 

So what should you do?

Well, identifying the issue is half the battle! 

As mentioned earlier, new indoor gardeners sometimes struggle when telling the difference between regular growth and leggy growth (although you shouldn’t now that you’ve read to this point). 

This can cause legginess issues to go unaddressed for far longer than they should be.

And yes, before I go any further, you do indeed have to do something about your leggy plants. 

Legginess is not an issue that fixes itself. 

If you change the conditions for your indoor plant tomorrow, no more leggy growths would occur. However, that does nothing to change the current leggy stems that are attached to your plant. 

You have to get rid of those. 

How to Fix Leggy Plants 

You’re eager to fix your leggy plant so you can once again proudly display it as part of your indoor garden. 

Doing so will require a two-pronged approach, so let’s go over everything now. 

Prune the Leggy Stems

Going back to my point from before, leggy overgrowths cannot remain on your plant. It’s simply not healthy, and the leggy stems will only get longer and leggier the next growing season.

You needn’t use heavy-duty gardening tools to prune back a leggy plant. The growths are so fragile that you might be able to use a pair of gardening scissors to get the job done.

The shears should be clean, so disinfect them using isopropyl alcohol (also known as rubbing alcohol) or bleach.

Before pruning, step back from your plant and assess where the leggy areas are. 

Even leggy stems will have leaf nodes, which are bumps on the stem or vine where new growth will eventually emerge. 

Find a leaf node and trim just above that area. 

You don’t want to remove entire stems, by the way. When shortening them, cut the stems down to one-third of their original length. 

This will make a big difference in improving the appearance of your plant. 

As you trim the plant, do so a bit at a time, taking breaks to assess the overall state of the plant. 

You don’t want to overdo it, as then you’ll have such little plant left that you’ll almost miss the leggy overgrowths.

The rule of thumb is to prune a plant by a third of its length at once. Stick to that rule and your leggy plant will be okay.

Make sure you disinfect your pruning tools when you’re finished. This is to hinder the spread of plant diseases from one plant in your indoor garden to another. 

Provide Better Lighting 

Next, you need to sufficiently illuminate your indoor plant. 

I would recommend reading up on what kind of lighting your plant needs. I have many, many in-depth plant care guides on this blog that go into precise detail on the lighting that a plant species or genus requires.

Perhaps you thought your plant only needed light for four hours a day when it’s really eight. Maybe you misread and thought the plant needed indirect light when it’s bright, indirect light.

Once you rectify these care mistakes, your plant will be much better off for it.

I do want to talk about the type of window you put your plant near, as that will make a big difference regarding how much light it receives.

Northerly and easterly-facing windows receive sunlight in the morning when the lighting intensity is lowest. The lighting here is described as cool and weak.

If you have plants in your indoor garden that only need bright, indirect light, then a curtained easterly or northerly-facing window is perfect.

Southerly and westerly-facing windows receive less sunlight in the morning but more in the afternoon. The light that comes through these windows is hot, bright, and strong. 

For plants that need direct sunlight, these are the windows to position the plant nearest. 

How to Prevent Leggy Plants

You’re happy to report that your previously leggy plant is looking lusher, fuller, and stronger than it ever has. You don’t want to run into any future issues with legginess, so how do you prevent it?

Here are some pointers.

Maintain a Pruning Schedule

As I said before, you need to prune your plant at least once per year to prevent it from growing long and leggy.

The late winter is a good time to prune, as it’s ahead of the growing season. You can also wait until the growing season starts, which is preferable for some plants like rosemary.  

Some years you might prune more heavily than others. It’s okay to look at your plant and determine that it barely needs any pruning.

Perhaps the plant didn’t experience a lot of growth that year or you kept the plant well-trimmed enough that you don’t have to do that much work this time around. 

Look for Signs of Lack of Light and Remediate them Immediately

By now, your indoor plant is growing in much more bountiful light than it was. 

However, times change, and you might not always keep the plant in the exact same spot month after month and year after year.

Your plant can tell you in other ways besides legginess that it’s starving for light. The following are all good signs to watch out for.

  • The soil takes longer to dry out because the plant is in darker conditions.
  • Growth stops or significantly slows.
  • The new leaves that emerge are smaller because the plant has to allocate its energy again.
  • The plant is growing towards whatever source of light is nearest. 

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