Friday, November 30, 2007

Setting up indoor grow lights

Images: top and middle > Sage Garden stock plants under T5 Lights in our office > bottom > Sage Garden tropical stock plants under 1000 watt Metal Halide Light

Setting up an indoor light system

Imagine: it is January on the prairies, the wind is howling, and temperatures are dipping into the -30’s. All evidence that gardens were at their peak - only 4 months earlier - has been erased by snow; desolation sinks-in as we wonder, “will winter ever end?” Now imagine coming inside to your “grow room”: fresh basil and oregano flirt with your senses, as you cut sprigs for tonight’s hearty pasta sauce. Your rosemary is thriving, alive with vivid blue flowers that you’ll use as the “special touch” at your next dinner party. Fresh mint is deep green and abundant for a soothing mint tisane. These are the benefits of a simple indoor grow light. In fact, our most profoundly satisfied customer stories often come from those who set up simple, easy to operate, and inexpensive grow areas indoors. These smart gardeners have created a potent antidote to our long winters!

The key benefits of setting up grow lights include:
1) greatly increased options for what can grow and thrive indoors
2) greatly increased productivity on herbs used for regular harvest
3) access to fresh, organic, low cost herbs for year round enjoyment (some people even grow veggies indoors on the prairies)
4) healthier, more resilient plants compared to windowsill grown plants
5) a personal sense of fulfillment at having a thriving indoor garden
6) a sanctuary from winter time blues (indeed, professional psychiatry has established the value of having extra full-spectrum light during winter)

Where to start:
The most important aspect of setting up a grow light is choosing the appropriate light for your needs. Grow lights can range from very inexpensive to massively expensive - you likely only require something very simple to achieve your indoor gardening vision. The most common type of light for home gardeners is cool white fluorescents, while gardeners looking to grow veggies or lots of plants might choose up to 500 watt metal halide lights. In this article we will focus on a new kind of compact fluorescent called a T5 light. This type of system is inexpensive, highly energy efficient, easy to set up, and very compact in size. The kind of T5 light used for growing plants uses a full spectrum bulb.

Just a quick aside: the Grow and Show type lights commonly sold in larger hardware stores are not suited for growing herbs or any other plant that grows intensively. Grow and Show bulbs are intended to enhance the look of tropical plants indoors, by providing a light high in red values.

Outdoor gardening projects are often most successful if you start small and work your way up - this applies equally to indoor gardening. Write down your goals, and decide if and where you have the space to realize you vision. If it is starting to feel complicated, simplify. A single 2 foot T5 light is ideal for four 6 six inch pots of your favourite herbs. 4 foot bulbs are not much more expensive, so perhaps you could up-size if you plan to keep 8 - 12 pots going.

The distance your fluorescent type light is positioned from the tops of your plants is critical. The cool operating T5 lights can rest almost amongst the top foliage, or at most 6 inches above your plant tops. Regular fluorescents can be rigged 6 to 8 inches above your plants. The closer to the tops, the dramatically more light energy is available to the plants, and thus the better the growth (once a fluorescent light is more than a foot or two away from the plant tops, there is essentially no benefit to the plant). The T5 lights offered at Sage Garden Herbs come with mounting clips so you can easily install the lights under kitchen cupboards if desired. They can also be rigged up on chains, allowing them to be adjustable (great if you plan to start seedlings) under the lights.

Plant Maintenance
Daylight Hours: While modern grow lights provide all of the correct light spectrum required to keep your herbs flourishing, they do need to be left on longer than the sun normally shines! A good rule of thumb is 18 hours on, 6 hours off. Some people use a timer to trigger the lights, but this schedule is close to many people’s waking hours, so you can simply turn the lights on when you get up, and turn them off when you go to bed. Your goal in growing herbs is usually vegetative growth; long, consistent daylight hours trigger this kind of growth.

Fertilizing: Plants growing under lights do not experience a winter dormancy, and therefore require ongoing feeding. Feed your “grow-op” plants as if it were summer. Choosing an organic fertilizer will eliminate the risk of burning your plants, while maximizing the health soil and root processes that lead a plant to thrive. In 2008, Sage Garden Herbs will feature a variety of organic soil amendments that will allow home gardeners to create optimum, low maintenance, and highly nutritious growing mediums for their herbs and other plants; stay tuned for results of our winter soil experiment - we are trialing different herbs and houseplants in 7 different soil and fertilizer combinations to see which provide the best growth, and easiest care!

Watering: Plants growing under lights will require regular watering, almost as if it were summer. Pay attention to watering deeply, ensuring that all of the root system gets hydrated. As always, only use pots with adequate drainage, as soggy roots are incompatible with most herbs. The frequency of watering will be significantly effected by the location of your indoor plants; cooler rooms will dry out more slowly, locations near heat vents will dry out quickly. Also, the number of plants and amount of humidity generated will impact drying of soil. Use your finger as a hydrometer - if you stick your finger into the top inch of soil and you feel moisture, leave the watering for another day.

Any water source is fine, but it is nice to recycle water from the dehumidifier or even fish tank - we have customers who rave about the growth obtained by using the highly nutritious water from the fish tank!

Harvesting and Pruning: Because plants growing under lights are in full summer mode, you can harvest frequently. In fact, the more you harvest, the bushier and healthier most herbs will become! Don’t be shy to clip your plants back regularly.

Pest Control: Indoor herbs run a chance of pest outbreaks. However, growing under lights reduces the occurrence of pests compared to natural light herbs, since the plants can be more easily provided key elements for health: adequate light, a nice hydration/drying cycle for the soil, and regular fertilizing. That said, keep eyes open for sticky leaves or other signs that pests are lurking. All indoor plants benefit dramatically from biweekly rinsing under fast flowing, fresh water. Ladybugs are much more likely to hang around plants growing under lights compared to plants simply in the windowsill - ladybugs are very helpful for reducing the chances of a pest problem. Try to avoid over crowding your plants. It is tempting to get as many as possible under limited grow light space, but plants benefit from good air circulation and leaving some space between pots reduces the movement of pests between plants, if pests do show-up. Finally, good sanitation keeps pests down; remove old, fallen leaves regularly, sterilize pruners with rubbing alcohol before harvesting, and wipe down the exterior of the pots and saucers every couple of months. While these chores can take some time, they very positively effect the health of your indoor plants!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Growing a great Tea Tree

A favourite herb to grow indoors!

One of the most popular ‘exotic’ herbs offered at Sage Garden is the handsome Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). This variety is best know as the source of tea tree oil, highly valued for its antiseptic, antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. We use Tea Tree oil as an organic fungal control in our greenhouses, and frequently make use of the oil around the home for cleaning. Tea Tree oil is one of the more popular ingredients in natural mosquito sprays. The reference to ‘tea’ is often asked about; Tea Tree was once used as a healing tea, but these days it is not often brewed into a tea for consumption (very medicinal flavour & difficult to digest). Tea Tree plants are tropical to subtropical natives of Australia, where they thrive in swampy areas. Many types of Tea Tree exist, with gorgeous variations in needle and/or flower color.

Cold climate gardeners appreciate Tea Tree plants as attractive, fragrant specimens. Plants have a lot of character and personality, so it is fun to choose one with a ‘look’ that appeals to you (come in and see what we mean)! Bonsai growers have fun with Tea Trees because they can be pruned and develop a gorgeous trunk with papery bark, even when kept small.

While many tropicals are slow growers in the north, Tea Tree can grow several feet in one season. One of our customers grew a 20 foot specimen in her back yard greenhouse, and we have a beautiful 15 foot tree in our greenhouses (five years old). Of course, they do not have to get that big! Pruning the tops and limiting the container size will regulate height. Tea Tree plants are normally evergreen if wintered indoors, and can flower in summer once they are a few years old.

The main requirement of potted Tea Tree plants is lots of water. This is critical. While most potted herbs like to be quite dry between waterings,Tea Tree plants can never become dry to the point of wilting. If your gardening style is to leave plants until the last minute before watering, pot your Tea Tree into some kind of self-watering container (yes, these do exist!). On the other hand, Tea Tree plants are ideal for the over-waterer! The issue of adequate water tends to be of greatest concern if the plants are summering outdoors on a sunny patio, and in doors overwinter when hot dry air is coming from heat vents. The larger the container size, the more forgiving the plant will be. Also, using non-peat based potting mixes such as coco-earth can help to retain soil moisture while still breathing nicely. Finally, keep in mind that good drainage is still required - Tea Tree plants should not be soggy, just watered frequenly.

Tea Tree plants love warmth, and will be happiest if they can be wintered indoors in a sunny window. The brighter the window, the more rapid the growth. If heat vents or radiators are close to the window, place plants on a pebble tray (rocks placed in the saucer, with plant-pot sitting on top of rocks) - this generates extra humidity in the immediate area of the plant. In our greenhouses, we keep our large Tea Tree cooler than ideal, and this causes about half the needles to shed over winter. If shedding is occurring on your Tea Tree, check the following: Has the soil dried out, even once? Is hot, dry air from heat vents hitting your plant? Alternatively, is cold air from air conditioning hitting your plant? Is your plant in a very cool sun room (5-10 degrees Celsius)? Would you say the plant is getting full sun for several hours each day? Have you been fertilizing regularly with an organic fertilizer? Tea Tree plants can recover from some episodes of shedding, but your plant will look much better if shed-inducing stress can be avoided.

Because Tea Tree plants are evergreen, they do like fertilizer year round. Using an organic fertilizer will encourage the healthiest possible root system, resulting in a resilient, healthy plant. Organic fertilizers are safe to use year round, as they will not lead to salt buildup (non-organic fertilizers are very salty and build up in the soil - especially hard on long term potted plants such as Tea Tree). We use Total Nourish liquid concentrate on our plants, supplementing with Ocean Fish in summer months when growth is most rapid.

Pests are rarely an issue with Tea Tree plants, because the oils are so potent (crush a leaf, and you’ll immediately appreciate just how much oil is in the leaves - they smell wonderful fresh or dried). The one pest that customers have reported is mealy-bug, admittedly an ugly pest! Mealy-bugs like hiding in the papery bark of more mature Tea Tree plants, so if they are to occur it will be on the main trunk or larger branches. Mealy-bugs can be controlled by using a Q-Tip dipped in rubbing alcohol or 10% bleach/water solution, and touching the bugs. They turn bright pink when you do this, indicating that they will die. Once adult bugs have been treated, spraying with neem oil is helpful, being sure to focus on the trunk and branches. Finally, mealy-bugs spend part of their life cycle in the ring of soil around the perimeter of the container; wiping the inner and outer rim of the plant container with rubbing alcohol or bleach solution, then doing a soil drench with neem (just in the two inches around perimeter). This will bring effective control. As with all indoor plants, regular rinsing with fast flowing fresh water (not just misting) is the best way to reduce pest occurrence.

Finally, many people wonder if they can do anything with their Tea Trees, beyond enjoying them as interesting plants... absolutely! The leaves can be made into a simple infusion, either using oil or distilled water. The easiest method is to pack a clear jar with fresh leaves and fill jar with either water or carrier oil (olive or grape seed are nice). Seal the container, then place in a very sunny spot. After two weeks oils from the leaves will have infused into your carrier, which can then be used to create other projects.

Tea Tree plants are available from Sage Garden Herbs from later May through October. For additional information, please refer to our plant information pages at: . Pure Australian Tea Tree oil is also available for purchase from our greenhouses.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Growing Chili Peppers Indoors

Hot Peppers...Year round!

At Sage Garden, we learn a lot from Asian grocery stores (and their operators). These are the places where exciting herb and fruit plants often first come to our attention (check out Dong Thai Grocery on Notre Dame Avenue in Winnipeg - this is where we first saw indoor fruiting bananas!). And ubiquitous in Asian grocery stores are gorgeous year round chili pepper plants.

Chili peppers are fun! Just as with herbs, peppers come in a multitude of varieties ranging from the everyday to the extraordinary. Some have beautiful fruits, others splashed with variegated foliage, and others grab you for their potency (I dare you to eat a Fatali Pepper or Chocolate Habanero!). Peppers come with a story; we grow many heritage and regional types that are intrinsically linked to people of a particular time or place. And a fully loaded hot pepper plant inspires the senses - those colorful fruits so tempting yet too hot to handle (but you nibble on one any ways).

Hot peppers are in fact warm climate perennials, making them well suited for indoor growth. On average, a potted pepper can remain productive for 3-5 years. By bringing hot peppers indoors, you get to enjoy the beauty of the plant, can harvest almost non-stop, and get to grow something unique.

In our experience, the best peppers to bring indoors are the Asian style chilies and other types with smaller fruits. Some favourites include the remarkable Black Pearl Pepper, Habanero types (we offer Chocolate, White, and Mustard), and Tricolor Variegated. Jalapeno style chilies do not seem to get as full or attractive, and it is far less common to see these growing indoors. Anyone with experience growing other chilies indoors is invited to post feedback.

Several simple steps will permit hot peppers to thrive for you indoors:

1) Grow them in a rich, organic based potting soil
2) Bring plants indoors around Labour Day weekend, and avoid any exposure to frost
3) Rinse plants under fast flowing fresh water as you bring them indoors, and keep up this practice every couple of weeks indoors
4) Fertilize with a compost based fertilizer
5) Keep plants in the sunniest window available (or under a simple fluorescent light if you do not have a bright indoor space)

Looking forward to hearing how your chilies grow!

Dave, Sage Garden Herbs

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Growing Lemon Verbena

One of our customers recently emailed with questions about growing lemon verbena - so we thought we would share the info with everyone:

Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is a must have herb: The heavenly, lemon scented (and flavoured) leaves are cherished for tea (hot or cold). Lemon verbena thrives in full sun, and a potting soil rich in organic matter. The branches of lemon verbena will triple at every point where you snip them - so harvest often!

Lemon verbena is a shrub from South American, and therefore must be wintered indoors below USDA zone 9. However, lemon verbena is deciduous and typically drops its leaves during the low light months. This is a critical point; we have heard from many sad gardeners lamenting the death of their plant over winter indoors (where as the plant was simply demonstrating its natural dormancy). Dormancy lasts one to three months, during which time you should water weekly and never fertilize. The only way to prevent winter dormancy for lemon verbena is to grow it under grow lights left on 18 hours/day.

During the active growing seasons of spring and fall, water and fertilize lemon verbena regularly. Plants can grow into well-branched plants over 24 inches tall in one season. Small white flowers often occur in late summer, and have a perfumey, delicate lemon fragrance. If planning to winter indoors, grow in 6 inch and larger pots with drainage holes.

Pests can be an issue when growing lemon verbena indoors; watch for spider mites and white flies. As a precaution, we recommend rinsing plants under fast flowing fresh water every two weeks.

Lemon verbena can be harvested at any time in the active growing season, and is equally wonderful fresh or dried.

For more information, please visit the Sage Garden Herbs info page for lemon verbena at .

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Endless Summer... Bring the garden indoors!

Fall is definitely in the air on the Prairies: trees have started to turn, the marigolds and perennial grasses have taken on their characteristic autumn intensity, and the winds have started to blow cool nights in on a regular basis. At Sage Garden Herbs, people are starting to ask about bringing their herb gardens indoors. Truth be told, the ideal time to start bringing herbs indoors is past (late August/Labour Day weekend) - but no matter, it can still be done!

The most important question people have is, "how do I avoid indoor pest problems?" The good news: simply washing your plants with a garden hose is one of the most effective, safe, and accessible tools in preventative pest control (your goal is really to prevent pests, not treat them once they occur). This should first be done outdoors, where you can really spray all parts of the plant, including undersides of leaves, stems, and woody bark. Most pests will be hiding out on the underside of upper growth. The follow-up requires prunning away top stems and leaves; this will encourage fresh new growth indoors, and physically remove the most likely pest-harbouring leaves. Woody plants like rosemary should be pruned just on new, flexible growth. Leafy plants such as mint or Vietnamese coriander can (should) be cut back almost all they way to the base - this will cause vigorous, healthy, and clean new growth indoors.

Once plants have been moved indoors, they should be rinsed under fast flowing fresh water (big sink, or shower for larger plans) once every couple of weeks. This will keep your plants very happy indoors. If you want to spray your plants with an ORGANIC insecticide we recommend Neem Oil, which is inexpensive ($8.95 for a 125ml concentrate bottle @ Sage Garden Herbs) and actually has preventative action rather than just controling insects in the moment.

The second biggest concern involves choosing appropriate varieties to grow indoors. This is a critical issue!

The best herbs to grow indoors are evergreen perennials from the warmest climates (zones 10-tropical). Some wonderful examples include allspice (if you haven't smelled fresh Allspice, you are invited to scratch and sniff our beatutiful tree at the greenhouse - it is amazing!), Cuban oregano, broadleaf thyme, gingers, Night Scented Jasmine, and tea tree. These plants thrive on year round warmth, and generally do not mind the decreased light levels of winter. Water and fertilize these types of indoor plants about half as often as you would in summer.

Many of the familar culinary herbs come from the moderate climates of Southern Europe (zones 6-9). These plants require lots of light, but cool night temperatures. Some examples include Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Lavender, Bay Leaf, and Myrtle. These varietites can be long lived and wonderful indoors through winter, but require the coolest night temperatures you can provide. Ideal locations include cool sunrooms, large windows (bay window), or patio doors. In our greenhouses, we allow these plants to get close to freezing; at home this is likely not possible, but at all costs avoid placing these plants near heat vents or radiators. These varieties are used to growing in conditions considerably more humid than a home heated with forced air in winter; this issue can be helped by placing the pots on a pebble tray (rocks placed on a saucer), a common technique used by orchid growers. Water and fertilize (with an organic plant food, otherwise salts will build up in the soil overwinter) these types of herbs about half as much as you would in summer.

Hardier perennials (zones 1-5) are not easily wintered indoors unless you have a cool greenhouse or can accept that they will be mostly dormant through the winter. These types of plants have developed strategies for lasting through cold winters by storing energy in their roots, a process that is triggered by cool nights and diminishing daylight in late summer/fall. Even grow lights are unlikely to coax these types of herbs into active growth for winter, with the exception of evergreen hardy perennials such as winter savory or hardy thymes.

Finally, I must raise the frustrating reality that basil, cilantro, dill, and other annual herbs are not suitable for bringing indoors. These plants are designed by nature to live for a single season, and stop growing once they have set seed. Although pinching flowers will prolong the plant's lifespan, most annual herbs cannot thrive once fall daylight hours have set in. The good news: Annual herbs can thrive under a simple fluorescent growlight! Indeed, some of our most content customers are those who set up an inexpensive light, allowing them to enjoy fresh herbs of all types even as the snow flies across the Prairie. We offer an excellent, affordable ($35.00) grow light called a T5, which has an ultra low power consumption ballast, full spectrum bulb, and easily mounts in the kitchen. Annual herbs should be started fresh from seed under lights, rather than brought inside. Annuals grown under lights should be watered and fertilized as if it were summer.

Indoor herbs thrive in 6 inch and larger containers, and benefit from a potting soil with compost incorporated into it. As an observation, anything that can be done at the outset to reduce care requirements greatly contributes to a successful indoor gardening project (think about how busy we all are during the holiday season, or how reliable your waterer will be when you are away on a winter vacation). Larger pots, and compost based soils reduce watering and lessen the need to be right on with fertilizing.

Well, I hope these ideas address the questions you might be having about bringing your herb garden indoors. If you have additional questions, or would like to post a comment, please do so. You can always drop by the greenhouse and see some of the fantastic varieties that can thrive indoors - and talk over your indoor gardening plans (PS. We also have lots of hardy perennials on sale, which can be planted out right into early October).

On behalf of Ev, and the staff at Sage Garden Herbs, thanks for checking out our first post!

Dave, SGH