Last updated on December 2nd, 2011
I TIP MY HAT to the adventurous soul who long ago placed African violets under fluorescent lights and discovered the magnificent results — constant bloom regardless of weather, and uniform growth without weekly turning. Today we know that almost any plant will thrive under lights. Vegetable seeds, for instance, if started in advance of the outdoor planting season, will grow strong and bushy beneath fluorescent lights — not weak and spindly as with windowsill culture. Fortunately, there is “light garden” to fit every home — and every budget:
TYPES OF SETUPS
Pictured above are two types of fluorescent set ups, each available from Gardener’s Supply. On the left is a three-tier light cart, for $569. On the right is a tabletop stand for $150. Although expensive, such setups are great for gardeners who don’t have the time or patience for DIY projects.
You can, for very little expense, produce your own light garden. I had five 48″x12″ shelves installed on the back wall of my study, as pictured above. Over each shelf I suspended a 48″ shop light. Shop lights feature a pair of fluorescent tubes, and are sold by most hardware stores for about $10. My setup is hardly glamorous, but who cares? This garden is in a “non-public” room, and the African violets, geraniums, and petunias that flower there do much to mitigate the utilitarian quality of the fixtures. Total cost for shelves, lights and labor? Under $100.
You can also turn a quite narrow section of your kitchen into a lavish garden. I did this very thing by mounting two shop lights to the underside of cabinets. This 6-inch wide garden has featured African violets during some years, and fresh culinary herbs during others. Total cost for these two gardens that bring such life and beauty to my kitchen? Less than $22.00.
WHAT SIZE FLUORESCENTS
Keep in mind that every square foot of growing area requires 15 to 20 watts of fluorescent light. Thus each of my plant shelves require two 48-inch, 40-watt tubes to illuminate the 12″ x 48″-inch space below. Because the center of a fluorescent tube emits the strongest light (and this is where you place your flat of tomato seedlings), it pays to get the longest possible tubes. You may not have room for 96-inch tubes, but most of us can manage the 48s. If space is severely limited, and if you have but a few plants or only one flat of seeds, a pair of 24-inch tubes will suffice.
TYPES OF TUBES
Growth lamps are more expensive than traditional commercial types, but experience shows they are not more effective. Easy-to-find “cool white” (the kind I use) and “daylight” fluorescents are preferred by most gardeners. Some growers like to combine one cool white with one daylight tube. Cool white tubes, 48 inches in length, sell for about $2.00 each.
LENGTH OF LIFE
When I install new tubes, I always mark the date with a grease pencil. They don’t last forever, and a slowing up of growth or bloom usually indicates that light is waning. Dirt can also interfere with light; city dwellers should clean tubes weekly, and the rest of us monthly. As a rule of thumb, one year is about the limit of a tube’s horticultural usefulness.
DISTANCE AND HOURS
It is impossible to state with conviction how much distance should exist between lights and plants, or how many hours plants should be illuminated. Different plants behave in different ways, under differing circumstances. In general, if foliage looks pale, or leaves curl under, you can assume the plants are too close. On the other hand, spindly growth or poor bloom suggests they are too far. Raise or lower plants (or lights) as experience indicates.
Regarding hours of illumination, you can experiment with 10 hours at first, and then increase the time as growth suggests. My own plants lounge and luxuriate beneath lights for 16 hours each day. I rely on a timer, not my memory, to turn the lights on in the morning and off at night.
I hope I’ve convinced you to turn your own basement, kitchen, study or dark basement into a thriving oasis of tropical flowers and culinary herbs. And don’t forget, a fluorescent lamp is the smartest way to get a head start on long-season, heat-loving veggies, including tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and even onions.
If you already have a light garden in your home, please tell us about it! Which plants do you grow there? For how many hours each day do you illuminate them?
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