Thursday, January 23, 2014

Let There Be Light

As you can see, it's obviously very important to provide your growing seedlings with plenty of light.  If you are blessed with a south-facing, warm and large window or a climate where you can have things out in a greenhouse early, you wouldn't need to set up a whole operation like the one in my living room.  But as I have a very cold sun porch to the south, and teeny north facing windows elsewhere, I need to break out the "system" as it were.

There are lots of very fancy, very expensive systems out there.  I'm sure they are lovely and the seedlings somehow know the expense and therefore grow with gusto.  But as I am a gardener on a very slim budget, here's what I did and how much it cost:
Inexpensive indoor greenhouse from the local Fleet Farm = $20 on sale, I got two of them ($40)
Two four-foot shop light kits per shelf = $12 each, three shelves x 2 lights ($72)
One "warm" fluorescent bulb per light kit = $5 per bulb ($30)
One "cool" fluorescent bulb per light kit = $5 per bulb ($30)
One 10 foot length package of #16 Single Jack chain = $5
12 S-hooks = 3 hooks per pack, $1 per pack x 4 packs ($4)
Total Cost for the Entire Set Up = $180

Compare that to a kit I recently drooled over that ran $500, lights included, and its not a half bad deal.  I also have a surge strip on a timer, which would have been about $20, but I use that from my Christmas lights so I don't factor that in.  Anyway, if an imminently reusable item costs less than $200 and can produce hundreds of pounds of food in its lifetime, I call that a good investment.

If you are wondering why I use one warm bulb and one cool bulb per light kit, its because by using that combination, you provide your seedlings with a full spectrum of light at a fraction of the cost of full spectrum light bulbs.  Full spectrum bulbs cost anywhere from $15 to $20 each, which is really sad when they burn out.  I read a couple of studies on the internet (one by Cornell University) which suggested that by using a combination of warm and cool fluorescent bulbs you get the same results as using two very expensive full spectrum bulbs.  And if you don't buy into big university studies, take my word for it:  your plants will love it and be happy.
The reason for the chain and the S-hooks is simple: It allows you to adjust the height of the shop lights (which also come with a chain) to keep the lights very close to your growing plants.  You want to keep the lights as close as possible, moving them up as the plants grow taller, so that your plants develop very healthy, strong structures.  Otherwise, they'll grow leggy and weak, struggling up to the lights above them.

A final note is to have your lights on a timer.  Mine are attached to a timed surge strip, and set to turn on at 5 AM and off at 630 PM.  Yes, the lights use up a bit of energy but being on a timer instead of all the time helps a bit.  Its rather nice to simulate a "real" day for the little plants--they do get some "twilight" time from the light in the living room when I am hanging out reading or watching TV, but nothing of significance.

Next time: My recipe for homemade potting soil.  Super cheap and super easy!

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