Friday, March 2, 2012

Starting Seeds Indoors with Grow Lights

Last week Zach and I set up a system in our sun-room to start many of our vegetable plants. For years I've started seeds in a sunny window, only to have them stem out, pale and leggy, straining for sun light before they even get their second set of leaves. Even if these plants do make it until the frost free date, they often die as they get older because the weight of the mature plant is too much for the leggy beginning to support. Because of this, I've resorted to buying already started plants at nurseries, or planted the seeds that I could, directly in the garden. The problem with this, is that you are limited to grow the varieties that the Nursery decides to sell that year.

This year, we decided that we really wanted to grow some heirloom varieties, in particular tomatoes! Unfortunately, when purchasing nursery started plants you get the basics. Early Girl, Celebrity, and Beefsteak. Occasionally I'll find an heirloom variety or two. Last year I found a Black Cherry Tomato and some Cherokee Purple, but pickings are far and few between, and with our Michigan growing season being what it is, tomatoes are one of those that you really need to start indoors.

So we looked into green houses, and unfortunately, even the inexpensive models were way out of our price range right now. SO the next step was indoor grow lights.

Hydroponic stores are sprouting up all over the place these day. (Ha! No pun intended, ok, maybe it was a little intended) You can get some really cool systems with lights that revolve on a pulley-like track. There are fancy stands and growing medium that make this seem like a gardener's dream! However, once again was the price tag. For the amount of plants that we wanted to start, a full set up would have cost hundreds of dollars! It was so much that it approached the price of some of the inexpensive greenhouses I'd looked into, and I'd rather have a green house.

We came up with this system and it only cost us $60. Much of that price is due to the fact that we had a lot of the materials already. But I think with some creativity, this system could be adapted into a much cheaper solution.

We used two metal shelving units that we had down our basement to hold Christmas stuff, and set them up side by side. This gives us 3 shelves with 3 flats of plants fitting across each shelf, so a total of 9 flats of plants to grow under the lights. We could do more if we were diligent about rotating. We had some fluorescent light fixtures in the barn from my dad's garage, and they span the width of the two shelve unit. We wired the fixtures to the bottom of the shelves, so they would hang over the flats of plants we started. The $60 comes in the price of the grow light bulbs. We found them for $19 each at Bordines Nursery, (Which I think is a Michigan company) and we bought 3. Each fixture has one grow light tube, and one regular fluorescent bulb, which will also emit light, favorable to plants. The brand is Agro Sun, they're cheaper here on Amazon, but I had a gift certificate to Bordines, so it worked out better for us. 

It's working great so far. Our newly planted seeds haven't sprouted yet, but I had some radishes started in a pot months ago and they were so leggy that the area where the radish is supposed to grow (at the dirt line) was more of a long red tube than a plumb bulb. Since we've placed them under the lights the plants have bushed out and are lush green and healthier. Same goes with some herbs I had growing in the kitchen. I'll keep you posted when our heirlooms start sprouting.

Has anyone ever tried those heat pads that are supposed to encourage germination? We've been trying to squeeze out the last drops of propane for the year, and save on our energy bills by keeping the house cool. I think that might be why the seeds are a little slow to start. Let me know if you've tried them and if they've worked well.

(even less if you have any Amazon promo codes)


Robert Pummer said...

You've really got an impressive set up going and on with good timing for the growing season.

Clint Baker said...

Thanks for sharing! I really enjoy visiting!

Anonymous said...

For a cheap heating pad, we use old christmas lights (non-led's) and bury them in clean kitty litter. It does a great job. Our cabbage sprouted within 3 days. Good luck. Also transplant your tomatoes lots and bury the stalk deep, it will create a hardier stem and root system so they don't snap as easy. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I had the same problem with a cool house last spring, and someone recommended covering the set up with a plastic drop cloth. It significantly improved the heat situation and the soil didn't dry out as fast.

Gramerly said...

Though I've been hatching chickens in my classroom for years, I still like brushing up on the process and enjoyed your articles about incubation.
I have never had luck growing plants from seed until I started using Jiffy pellets and gro-lights. I always cover the tray with plastic wrap until they sprout and only leave a couple of inches between the light and the plants.
You can also sprout seeds in warm water on an appliance like the frig, but be so gentle moving them to the soil.
I love it, as I am growing ten different types of heirloom tomatoes now. I just read on a site where it said to gently run your palm over the plants as they grow and that will also increase their stem strength- who knew?

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