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Jan. 13, 2015 | Donna Balzer

Shedding light on growth

Explore grow lights to boost seedlings this year

First the plants get tall and thin, and then they fall over and die.

Such is the fate of seeds grown too long on a winter windowsill.

Like Humpty Dumpty, a germinated seed can't be put back in the seed. Once seeds get enough water to germinate, they sprout and are suddenly desperate for light to grow. A windowsill can work for micro-greens, but larger plants need intense light to grow, and the easiest way to get it is to set up grow lights. The usual scheme is to use fluorescent lights suspended by chains and s-hooks from shelves. As the plants grow you move the lights up away from the plants so they are always about 15 centimetres above the plant. There are fancier systems built to move up and down easily - such as Floralights from Lee Valley Tools or Sunblasters from Garden Retreat in Calgary - that often include the newer energy efficient T5 lamps. These plant-stand systems also include sturdy plastic trays so your windowsills or wooden shelves don't get wet.

A single desktop Floralight system is 127 centimetres long and 48 centimetres wide so it holds four commercial plastic trays and has the capacity for hundreds of seedlings. Once the seeds have sprouted and grown true leaves they are either eaten as micro-greens, or grown into bigger plants.

In a four-tray Floralight you might initially have 22 dozen plants. As you keep moving seedlings into larger containers you may eventually only have room for eight plants per tray or less than three-dozen plants in a single system.

The extra plants have to go somewhere so plan ahead and know how many plants you will eventually
want to grow for spring.

To get started, it doesn't matter what you buy for grow lights but if you plan to raise hundreds of plants, plan for that. You might find yourself in the hardware store or a garage sale buying up cheaper fluorescent fixtures that hold two lights per ballast and layering them from chains in a condo storage room or townhome basement.

Researching and buying a grow-light system now will get you ready to grow when your seeds start arriving from suppliers. Meanwhile, as your seeds arrive, start grouping them in little piles with "best start" days on a sticky on each pile.

By the end of January you can kick off spring by seeding leeks and geraniums, so get growing by finding the lighting system now that will work for you later.
Donna Balzer is a garden writer and speaker. Check out her blog at or follow on twitter @NoGuffGardener.

Tagged: Donna Balzer | Guest Column | planting | plants

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