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Why does my Outdoor Annual Plant Look Leggy and Stretched Out?

I got my first outdoor annual plant only a few years back. It was a marigold of the most beautiful shade of orange you could imagine.

While it looked pretty when it was small, the more it grew, the more leggy and unappealing it started to look.

I first attributed this legginess to its thin stem, but after more digging, I found out there is much more to than what meets the eye.

The most common reasons for outdoor annual look leggy and stretched out are lack of sunlight and excessive nitrogen fertilizer use. In addition, not providing proper care to plants, like pruning and trimming, can result in excessive growth and stretching.

Healthy plants look bushy and have a certain aesthetically gratifying quality. You will notice that the leaves are green, the stem and branches are sturdy, flowers are blooming generously, and the overall plant looks pleasing to the eye.

Beautiful Marigold
Beautiful Marigold

But if the plant does not get the proper care it needs, it starts to look untidy and sparse to grow as if the plant is trying to say that it is not happy.

If you feel that your plant is unhappy, you might want to remember a few things to show that you genuinely care.

Reasons why your Outdoor Annual Plant Looks Leggy and Stretched Out

Tending a plant is not exactly rocket science, but it is also not an easy task.

Even if you water your plant properly, fertilize in time, play music for your plant (Yes! some people do this), and trim it timely, failure to take into account a single factor can have a devastating effect on your plant.

If you water the plant properly but forget to use an appropriate potting mix, then it’s not going to work.

If you fertilize your plant in time but use Nitrogen-rich fertilizer rather than Phosphorous and Pottasium-rich fertilizer for your annuals, then it will only harm your plant.

Here are the most common reasons why your outdoor annual plant looks leggy and stretched out:

1. Lack of Proper Sunlight

The importance of light to grow a healthy plant cannot be stressed enough. More so for annuals.

Light is the most important factor that contributes to the food-making process of a plant.

Without proper light, a plant can’t make its food and eventually slopping off and looks floppy.

Annuals require the most light as they need a lot of energy to bloom in their growing season. Therefore, they typically bloom all season year-round except during winter.

When an annual plant doesn’t receive enough light, it tends to stretch out towards the sun resulting in a leggy and stretched-out appearance. It does so to get enough light for producing the necessary sugar required for its growth.

It can also result in a long spindly stem on one side and very little to no growth on the other side.


  • Place your plant in a space where it gets an adequate amount of light.
  • Avoid placing it somewhere with shade or in places where it only gets partial light.
  • Annuals mostly grow best outdoors, where they receive full sunlight for at least 8 hours a day.
  • If you plan to grow your annuals indoors, place it in a South-facing window where it gets enough sunlight.
Sunflower Starting To Get Leggy
Sunflower Starting To Get Leggy In Garden

Provide adequate spacing for the plant to get the full amount of light on each side.

For balanced growth, rotate your annual plant a quarter turn each week. It allows every side of the plant to get an equal amount of sunlight, making your plant grow evenly.

2. Excessive Nitrogen fertilizer

Whether liquid, solid, capsule, granules, or wettable powder fertilizer, every fertilizer you use contains only three major components. They are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium commonly referred to as NPK.

Each of these components has a specific part to play in the growth of a plant.

Nitrogen encourages the growth of leaves and provides the green coloration in the plant.

Phosphorous helps to develop the roots, make the seeds and flowers of the plant. It also allows plants to utilize their resources properly.

Potassium, on the other hand, handles the overall growth of the plant. It is responsible for producing strong stems and encourages balanced growth. It also helps to fight pests and diseases.

Excessive use of Nitrogen-rich fertilizer in annual plants causes excessive development of the green parts, eventually resulting in spindly, thin stems with more leaves and branches than flowers.

It would be best if you fertilized your annuals once every six weeks throughout the growing season to keep it thriving.

While most annual require fertilizers as their basic pre-requisite, some plants do well without adding any fertilizers.

Most experts prefer not to use organic fertilizer as an alternative to chemical fertilizers as they do not have the necessary amount of required nutrients to grow.

Excessive Nitrogen usually occurs when gardeners treat their soil with mulch, cover crops, manure, feather meal, blood meal, etc., to increase its fertility and health.

While they do so with good intentions, some of these soil amendments can be too high in Nitrogen. For example, just a feather meal has an NPK ratio of 15:0:0.

So it’s important to do your research before using organic alternatives in your soil.

If you think your soil is high in Nitrogen, you can use that soil to plant carrots, shoots, or other fruits that can help leach the excess Nitrogen.


Annuals need Phosphorous and Potassium-rich fertilizers to provide enough energy for blooming year-round.

An all-purpose plant fertilizer in the ratio 5-10-5 or 8-8-8 formula is best for growing your annuals.

If you are planning to buy one, you can never go wrong with Miracle-Gro All Purpose Fertilizer.

5-10-5 is best for blooming annuals like Marigold, Petunias, Begonias, Poppy, whereas 8-8-8 is ideal for foliage annuals like Artemisia, Canna, Coleus, Hosta, etc.

Note: 5-10-5 or 8-8-8 refers to the ratio of NPK in a fertilizer. In the first case, the ratio 5-10-5 means 5 parts N, 10 parts P, and 5 parts K respectively.

Miracle-Gro All Purpose Fertilizer(Source: Amazon)

Always remember to follow the instructions on the backside of the fertilizer that states how much to apply and when to apply.

Prune to Keep Outdoor Annual Plant from Becoming Leggy and Stretched Out

By now, you have learned the importance of light and fertilizer for avoiding your annual plant from looking leggy and stretched out.

Even if your outdoor annual plant has already started becoming leggy and stretched out, you can still solve this issue by pruning.

Pruning in the growing season is the best way to avoid leggy growth and a stretched-out look.

Pruning serves two purposes for your annual plant. First, it helps eliminate leggy growth; secondly, frequent pruning will make your plant look bushy and healthy.

Things to Keep in Mind Before Pruning

Pruning is a simple activity that anyone can do, and that includes beginners too.

You don’t need to be an expert on flowers and gardening to prune a plant properly.

However, before you get excited and start snipping off your flowers, there are a few things that you need to keep in mind before pruning.

Mimulus guttatus
Overgrown Mimulus guttatus (Source: Wikimedia)

When to Prune your Outdoor Annual Plant?

Generally, pruning is done after your plant starts showing off its beautiful flowers. Unfortunately, that generally lies in spring and around the mid of summer season.

You can stop pruning your annual plant after it is done flowering and starts shedding off on its bloom on its own.

Pruning throughout the growing season will make the plant look compact, bushy, and lush.

It will encourage new blooms and make the plant look more elegant and healthy.

What Kind of Tools are Required?

A pair of pruning shears or a sharp pair of scissors will do the work.

Depending on how much you want to prune and what kind of pruning you want, you can also do it by hand.

Another important factor to consider while using equipment is to sterilize them properly. Contaminated equipment is one of the most common reasons for disease incidence.

You can use rubbing alcohol or bleach to disinfect your tools and make them free from harmful bacterias.

For tough nooks and crannies, you can use a micro-tip pruner to get the job done easily.

Pruning equipments
Arrangements for pruning (Source: Unsplash)

Which Method to choose for pruning?

There are various methods of pruning that result in different outcomes.

Incorrect pruning can result in improper growth and damage the plant’s health.

Some of the effects of improper pruning are:

  • Deformed plant parts
  • Reduced blooming
  • Cutting improperly can cause an opening for disease and pests
  • Wind and frost can damage improperly pruned plants.

The most common pruning methods used are thinning and reducing to prevent your outdoor annuals from growing leggy and stretched out.

Pinching refers to pruning by pinching the dead foliage and flowers with the index finger and thumb. It aims to make the plant look tidier.

Reducing is the act of selective pruning, whose main goal is to reduce the height or spread of the plant. In addition, it helps to clear overgrowth and prevent the plant from looking leggy.

Check out this article: How to Make Pothos Fuller?

Prune your Outdoor Annuals to prevent it from looking Leggy and Stretched Out

Pruning should be done in a calm and precise manner. It is akin to meditation.

If you do pruning early enough, it will keep your plants in great shape and order.

Following steps should be taken while pruning your outdoor annuals.

Step 1: Observe the Plant

Before making any cut, you need to properly observe the plant and determine where the pruning needs to be done.

Pick which parts need pruning, which part of the plant is overgrown, and which side contains leggy foliage.

Also, check out for new growths and avoid damaging them while pruning.

Step 2: Remove the Dead Plant Parts First

The first thing you want to do is the remove the plant parts that are diseased or dying before starting your pruning.

You can pinch off any dead blooms and leaves that come off easily. If you need to cut down any rotting stems, then do so by using the appropriate tools.

When removing dead plant parts, try to do so as close to the main stem as much as possible.

Step 3: Making your Cut

Cutting should be done about 1/4 inches above a bud or shoot using scissors or pruning shears.

It would be best if you did the cutting at a 45-degree angle for faster growth. Also, it would be best if you made cutting as close to the base of the stem.

Any floppy or sprawling leaves should be trimmed and kept under control.

This pruning method encourages new growth and prevents it from looking leggy and stretched out.

Once you achieve the desired shape, then it’s time for its aftercare.

Check these articles to learn about pruning other houseplants: How to Prune Polka Dot and African Voilet?

Tips to Care for Outdoor Annual Plants After Pruning

While pruning reduces the leggy and stretched-out look, it’s also equally important to provide adequate care to your annual plant after pruning to ensure well-formed growth.

Watering and fertilizing are the important aspects to be considered after pruning, along with its light and temperature requirements.

1. Watering Frequency

There is a wide variety of flowers under the term annuals, and every flower has its own watering needs.

Moss rose, California poppy, lantana, and gazania require less water than other varieties. Other varieties require more water.

Pruning is stressful for a plant which is why it needs proper water to recover fast.

It is suggested that you find the watering requirement for your specific plant to be on the safe side.

In general, outdoor annuals need watering daily as these plants need a high amount of water to grow.

You can also see if the plant needs water by inserting your finger 2-3 inches deep in the soil. If it is dry, then it’s time for watering.

Watering a Plant (Source: Unsplash)

2. Fertilizer Requirement

Fertilizing should be done right after pruning so that the plant needs the necessary nutrients to recover from the stress.

Annuals planted in a container require daily watering and weekly fertilizing for rapid recovery.

Plant in the ground might not need as much water, and once every 2-3 weeks, fertilizer shall be good enough.

Just like watering requirements, different annuals have different fertilizing requirements as well. Begonias should be fertilized once every two weeks.

Geraniums need fertilizer at least about two times a week. However, most of the other annuals prefer getting fertilized at least once a week.

You can talk with your local gardener to see what amount of fertilizing your specific annual needs.

3. Light Requirements

Since annuals bloom year-round, sunlight is an essential part of their growth. For outdoor annuals, most of the annuals prefer sunlight while most don’t.

Since the term ‘annual plant’ refers to a wide variety of plants, you must research the specific type of plant you are planning to grow.

Most annual plants that can grow well in full sunlight are Marigold, Zinnias, Lisianthus, Petunias, Begonias, Poppy, Ageratum, Cosmos, Sweet Pea, Geraniums, and Vincas.

For partial sun, it’s best to choose plants like Pansies, Coleus, Regal, Lobelia, Calendula, Alyssum, and Fuchsia.

Either way, you must provide at least four to six hours of full sunlight for all your annual plants.

4. Temperature Requirements

Most annuals prefer to have a temperature that is on the right side of the heat spectrum.

It means that your annual will require a temperature of at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit to survive.

Some do well below 40 degrees Fahrenheit like Pansy, Snapdragon, Petunias, and Calendulas, but the rest of your annuals would prefer a warmer climate.

Regardless of the plant’s hardiness, it is best to let the temperature drop below 40 degrees. In case of frost, you can raise the plant’s temperature by covering it with a frost blanket.

You can also add a layer of mulch in the soil to insulate the delicate roots from the low temperature of the surrounding.

Check out this informative video on caring for annual plants


By now, you should have a clear idea of what you need to do to avoid your annual from looking stretched out and leggy.

Some prior knowledge about fertilizers and light, some pruning methods, and some care instructions are the only things that you need to keep in mind.

A bit of love and care for your plant will go a long way in making your plant look graceful and elegant.

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