How To Turn Stunted Tomato Seedlings Around

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Last Updated on March 20, 2023 by Cristina

In most cases, it is quite easy to turn stunted tomato seedlings around. Growing your own tomatoes is one of the gardener’s greatest joys. The root causes of stunted tomato seedlings are generally quite easy to fix, and you can turn these seedlings around and harvest a great crop.

Every year I grow crops of oxheart, beefsteak, yellow pear, moneymaker, cherry (wild), rainbow, and little wonder tomatoes. If I am lucky a Crimean black or two will come up (they have just become their own thing in my garden and come up where they want to). I also sometimes buy a few Heinz and other strains in. You get two main growth types in tomatoes.


These are bush tomatoes. They grow, flower, and normally die afterward.  If you are lucky they give you a second or third flush of fruit.


These are the tomatoes that take over your world. They will grow and sprawl and eventually invade your entire garden. More often than not, they will drop fruit everywhere, and the following year they will come up like a carpet, and you will start to hate them ever so slightly.

Growing Tomato Seedlings

We only really have to worry about growing Determinate tomato seedlings after the first year. The indeterminates will come up all over your garden in such abundance you will wish you never planted them. You will have more seedlings of these than you can possibly ever know what to do with them. If you see a stunted one come up somewhere in your garden, kill it. Keep the good ones.

I start my determinate tomatoes out in a cloning chamber (I normally use this for another plant type, but it works very well for tomatoes). After they sprout and become healthy little seedlings I transfer them over to 5″ peat pots with good potting soil in them.

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You can now let them grow out because the soil is good and your pot is big enough, you have little risk of this being stunted by the time it is warm enough to plant in the garden.

If you buy tomato seedlings these can easily be stunted.

Learn more about: Tomato Plants Not Growing &; What Could Be The Problem? 5 Problems Related To Tomato Growth

Why Are Bought Tomato Seedlings Often Stunted?

Often when you buy seedlings from a nursery or shop these can be a bit stunted. The reason for this is how industrial seedlings are generally produced. A lot of commercial seedling “factories” use coco-coir as a medium to grow tomatoes. The tomato seedlings are typically fed a complete growth nutrient in their irrigation water, hence these seedlings look amazing when they arrive.

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After seedlings have been at the shop or nursery for a few weeks they can start to look a bit tired. This is because they are in coco-peat and this contains no nutrients. You will remember that they were fed constantly at the production facility and then when they get to the shop or nursery they basically use up the residual bit of nutrient in the coir and soon they are nutrient starved causing them to become stunted tomato seedlings.

These stunted tomato seedlings often turn a purplish yellow color and look absolutely terrible. The cool thing with tomatoes like this is that you can normally take them to the nursery owner and say “look at these stunted tomato seedlings? I will maybe offer you a third of the full price for this because it is clearly a nearly dead plant.” More often than not you will get the stunted tomato seedlings for free or at a big discount.

How To Turn Stunted Tomato Seedlings Around

I have often haggled and bought trays of interesting and weird stunted tomato seedlings. Once you get these miserable stunted tomato seedlings home you need to turn them around into functional plants and aim to get a crop. This is actually really easy to do!! Follow these steps.

Prepare Soil

If you are planting into the ground, dig the soil over, and add a lot of compost and manure. Tomatoes are heavy feeders. Tomatoes are one of the few plants that can actually grow well in pure manure – for proof of this go to any sewerage works and go and have a look at the “sludge drying beds”. You will see they are full of healthy tomatoes! If you are using a pot, fill it with good soil.

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Plant The Stunted Tomato Seedlings

I find that if you plant stunted tomato seedlings deep it seems to help their recovery. What I mean by this is you can easily plant the seedling so that just the top few leaves protrude from the soil. The stem of the tomato will grow additional roots, and this will aid it to absorb more nutrients and strengthen itself.

Quarantine Your Stunted Tomato Seedlings

I always plant my stunted tomato seedlings a little away from other plants. If the seedlings do not recover (and I have never had that happen) then it is possible they are stunted due to a virus or some other horrible thing. In which case terminate them.

How Fast Do Stunted Tomato Seedlings Recover?

I find that you are looking at about a week to start seeing green leaves appear, and if all goes well after two weeks you have perfect plants that are stretching and doing their thing. I often find that this little “starvation period” seems to make the plants really vigorous once they get healthy again. I think it gives them a sense of desperation and they really want to just get big and make fruit quickly because maybe things could get bad again.

So now you know how to get stunted tomato seedlings for free, or a big discount and how to turn them around into your prize-producing plants!! Growing tomatoes is one of life’s great joys! I hope you can have a great season, lovely fruit, and rescue some poor neglected plants!! If you enjoy this, please share.

Read more about: How Deep Do Tomato Plants& Roots Grow?


Will stunted tomato seedlings recover?

Yes - plant the seedlings deep and in good nutrient rich soil. More often than not they will bounce back in a week or two. Some of my best crops ever have been from tired stunted trays of tomato seedlings that nurseries gave to me, or sold at a big discount.

Why are my tomato seedlings stunted?

They are probably nutrient starved. Commercial seedlings are normally grown in coco-coir and fed nutrients. When they leave for the nursery or shop these plants will look amazing, and then get stunted after a week or two of being watered with water only. They run out of nutrients and the plants turn a purple red color. They will recover if planted in good soil.

How do you fix stunted tomato seedlings?

Plant them in good soil and plant them deep - they will root additionally from their stems and this can help if they have got a bit root bound as well. Good soil makes magic happen with tomatoes.

Can stunted growth be reversed?

Yes - more often than not stunted tomatoes have been stunted by nutrient deficiency. Planting them in a good balanced soil and providing regular watering will result in them bouncing back. Much like a rescue shelter dog, these "rescued" tomatoes appreciate any and all love you give them and will flourish much better than "spoilt" healthy seedlings. Something about a bit of neglect and then good conditions seems to encourage the plants to be mean and cunning in their recovery. I have found these stunted plants seem to bounce back and be more disease resistant, and yield good crops.

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