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Starting Seeds Indoors Under Lights
Even though the days are perceptibly longer now, there's still not enough light for many vegetable and flower plants. This week, for example, the days are about 9 hours and 45 minutes long. When starting seeds indoors for transplanting later in the season, a sunny window seldom provides enough light. But you can supplement or replace the sunlight with fluorescent lighting. Everything you need for an indoor light garden can be found at your local DIY store.
A fluorescent "shop light," consists of a four-foot fixture holding two 40-watt fluorescent lamps. This is the minimum size we recommend for starting plants. Smaller fixtures have correspondingly less light output, and often cost more than the mass-marketed shop lights. Costing around $10 each, shop lights are affordable, and three of these fixtures will provide enough light to start even sun-loving plants like peppers. Our indoor light garden consists of steel baker's racks (also from the DIY store), several shop lights, electrical power strips and a couple of timers. We keep the lights on for a minimum of 12 hours per day, and have successfully started cabbage, chard, onions, leeks, celery and snapdragons so far this season.
We also tried a so wingof lettuce and learned an important lesson about indoor gardening. Even though the plants have plenty of light, they need to be kept at the correct temperature for proper growth. Our growing space hovers around 75 degrees during the day, and this has led to some disappointing results with lettuce, as the accompanying photo illustrates. The seedlings grew too quickly and fell over. We are going to move one of the shelf units to the garage, where the temperature averages about 10 degrees cooler. The nice thing about lettuce: it germinates so quickly that we have plenty of time to replant.
For the serious food gardener who wants to get the maximum jump on the season, an indoor light garden is the next best thing to a heated greenhouse, and a whole lot less expensive to set up and maintain. Each bank of three shop lights consumes 240 watts of electricity (6 times 40 watts per lamp). Running the lights for 12 hours per day, therefore, uses 2.9 kilowatt hours of electricity. So the electricity to operate each bank is 27 cents per day. The whole set-up will cost about $30 per month to operate, but we will only need it for three months. For about $100 in electricity we can grow enough plants to yield several times that much in fresh veggies plus have plants left over to share or sell.