In the Garden:
Upper South
December, 2003
Regional Report

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Growing orchids or other houseplants, even herbs and vegetables, under fluorescent lights is a great way to enjoy gardening during winter.

Let There Be Light

My father was an inveterate optimist, always seeing the glass as half full. One of my strongest memories of him coincides with the winter solstice. He didn't see it as the longest night of the year, but, rather, as the beginning of each day getting longer and brighter. That recollection keeps me going through those dreary days of January and February. Growing houseplants also helps, and knowing, too, that it will soon be time to start some seeds for next summer. If you've had problems with either of these gardening activities, then this season of light seems the appropriate time to consider using lighting fixtures indoors for plants.

Benefits of Lights
Short of a greenhouse or very bright sunroom, growing plants under lights almost ensures success. All manner of flowering plants, such as orchids, African violets, citrus, and other tropicals, as well as annuals, can be kept flowering all winter long. It's even possible to grow tomatoes, herbs, and lettuce with lights. Certainly, stocky seedlings are the result, especially if the height of the light unit is adjustable.

Not All Light is the Same
In choosing light bulbs for growing plants, remember that sunlight contains the full spectrum of light, ranging from red through yellow to blue and violet. Obviously, not all natural sunlight is the same. The light in Minnesota in winter is far different than the light in Jamaica. The light under trees is different from the light in an open area. But as gardeners, we may have observed that certain plants do best with a certain intensity or color of light. Light in the red spectrum tends to stimulate vegetative growth and flowering, while blue light is more critical for plant growth regulation.

The bottom line, however, is that you're apt to be standing there in front of the light bulb display wondering what to buy. The current buzzword in lighting, for both people and plants, is "full-spectrum." Unfortunately, this is more of a marketing term, with each manufacturer making up its own definition of full-spectrum lighting. Most of these full-spectrum lights are sold at a premium price. The simplest, least-expensive solution for a fluorescent grow-light fixture is to use a combination of cool-white and warm-white fluorescent tubes. For more specifics, I suggest you check out the Web site of the National Lighting Product Information Program (http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/programs/nlpip/lightingAnswers/fullspectrum/abstract.asp).

Choosing a Fixture
Garden catalogs, hardware stores, and garden centers offer a variety of light fixtures. Most of these use fluorescent light bulbs. Some of these are attractive enough for the most frequently used living areas, while you want prefer to relegate other units to less-used areas. At the most basic level, a fluorescent shop light will work.

Although somewhat expensive, the multiple-level units provide a lot of growing space in a small area. In choosing one, look for convenience. For example, how easy is it to raise and lower each light fixture? Is there a separate on/off switch for each fixture? How big are the plant trays? Is the unit on casters?

Another factor is how many bulbs each fixture holds. A light fixture that holds four fluorescent bulbs will provide the most light. If the fixture only holds two bulbs, consider if the reflector is specially designed to distribute light effectively.

No matter what you choose, you'll soon find yourself wondering why you didn't grow plants under lights long ago. And, before you know it, spring will be here.


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