Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Seed Starting Part 2: LIGHTS!

SOOOO... what have you decided to grow? I think I'm most excited about growing black cherry tomatoes this year. I plan to start a lot of those seeds to make extra sure I end up with at least two bushes.

Today we'll talk about how to set up a grow light, which will ensure that your seeds sprout into sturdy healthy seedlings. But before getting into all that, I have to say that last year I started tomato seeds on my window sill using nothing but the natural light shining in from outside. The seeds sprouted and grew into spindly floppy baby tomato plants that looked terribly unhealthy - but they were growing! I hardened them off and planted them out into the garden. And they didn't die! They didn't grow either, for about a month and a half, but they didn't die! This was a major success in my terrible gardening track record. While my friends were watching their large leafy tomato bushes from the nursery blossom and develop tiny green tomatoes, I was watching my tiny seedlings sit in the garden and not die. But then, after waiting for over a month, they took off and grew, blossomed, and gave me a decent crop of tomatoes. Out of the 24 plants that I started, I ended up with 5 mediocre tomato bushes and enough fresh tomatoes to keep us happy through the summer (though I didn't have any left over for canning or making tomato sauce, which made me quite sad).

I tell you all that to let you know that it is definitely possible to grow tomatoes from seed without using grow lights. However, you will put in just as much work and emotional energy and see a lot less output than you would if you took the time to rig up a light or two. And that's just tomatoes. I have never been able to start pepper or eggplant seeds using my window sill method.

This will be my first official year using grow lights to start plants, so maybe you and I are in this together. I've been watching my brother do it for years and every spring find myself coveting his deep green leafy BUSHES sitting there waiting to be planted out into the garden. This year I hope to have some of those myself. Here is the basic process:

1.) Obtain a light. "Grow Lights" sound fancy and can be expensive, but you will do just fine starting your seeds under regular old 40-watt fluorescent bulbs. The difference between these and officially-labeled grow lights is that grow lights emit slightly more red and blue light than fluorescent bulbs, but the difference is not enough to dramatically affect your plants or warrant spending tons of money. Go for the cheap bulbs!

2.) Create your space. Once you have your light (or lights, depending on how many seeds you plan to start), you need to find a way to rig it up so that it hangs just an inch or two above the top of your seed tray and is adjustable. As you plants grow, you will need to raise the light so that it is always just a little bit above the tops of the plants. There are many ways to do this, ranging from fancy-schmancy to jerry rigged. Here is a picture of my brother's set up from last year:

You can see that he put his seed trays on a shelf in the guest room with the light suspended above them. Rather than moving his light up, he has opted to put a box under the seed tray and gradually move the plants down to maintain the proper distance from the light. Good idea David! :) He is also using a fan; blowing air (gently) on your seedlings better mimics the outside environment and causes them to develop sturdier stems, making them easier to transplant later. You don't have to use a fan, but it will make for prettier and healthier plants, which means more vegetables!

My dad and I are sharing a seed starting space this year, so he built grow light stands using PVC pipe:

The lights sit on top of the PVC pipe frame and we will be lowering our seedlings as they grow. I'm using the greenhouse to house our seed starting operation simply because there is no room in my house. I know that my brother has started seeds in his garage where there is no sunlight and my other brother has started seeds in his closet. You don't need a lot of space to do this, and because you are providing the light using your grow light, it doesn't have to be done outside.

3.) Furnish your space. If you are anything like me, you get excited about a project like this but run out of steam once the newness wears off. A few weeks in, you get tired of watering the plants twice each day, or actually forget to water them at all! Let's not allow that to happen this year and make sure our space is as user friendly as possible.

Of course you need to be near an electrical outlet so you can plug in your lights and fan, if you are using one. Put plastic under your area if you are growing inside to keep water from draining onto your floor. Buy a watering can or mister - something that puts out a delicate spray of water so that you don't wash your tiny seedlings away when you water them. You will be watering them a lot, so you want to make sure doing this is not a huge pain - positioning your grow station far away from a water source is a bad idea.

4.) Get Creative! As far as I'm concerned, one of the biggest benefits to having a garden is saving money. There is no point in spending all of the money you are about to save on supplies to get your garden set up. Look around and ask around for things you can use to set up your seed starting station. Craig's List is a great resource, as well as freecycle or even garage sales. It doesn't have to look good - it just has to work.

If you've hung in there with all my ramblings, you are ready to set up your growing space. This is the hardest part of the whole process - once your seed starting area is ready, you can move on to the fun part: putting seeds in dirt. That's coming next - I'm so excited, aren't you?


  1. Pretty cool setup you have done with in the grow light for the proper sprouts of the seeds.Thanks for posting.If you need some tips about grow light then you can proceed

  2. The fan was an excellent idea! Thanks for the tip! I too noticed that my tomatoes (stripped Romas) were also a little straggly. I will definitely used this trick. Thanks so much Heather and happy gardening!

  3. The fan was an excellent idea! Thanks for the tip! I too noticed that my tomatoes (stripped Romas) were also a little straggly. I will definitely used this trick. Thanks so much Heather and happy gardening!