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.
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!