Indoor Gardening 101

Gardening

When the winter blahs set in and you’re dreaming of fresh greens from your summer garden, consider growing indoors. Not only do plants cleanse your household air (read about Greens That Clean) and improve the aesthetics of any indoor space, they can provide your family with a wealth of yummy, organic foods.

City dwellers, or those without a good gardening spot in the yard, may find growing indoors especially useful. Plants don’t need to take up much space — a windowsill is fine if that’s all you have. For others, the indoor garden may become starter plants for an outdoor garden come spring.

An indoor garden can take up as much or as little space as you are willing to give it. Growing plants of all kinds, even tomato gardening can be done on a windowsill or on a table.

Larger growers, or the more dedicated may want to set up a table or bench specifically for the garden. Find an area with a tile or linoleum floor to catch the inevitable drops of water, or place a tarp under your table.

Shelves provide lots of planting room while taking up little space. If using shelves, make sure that adequate light reaches every plant. This may require a separate grow light for each shelf.

Light

Plants need light to photosynthesize and need to photosynthesize to survive. Without adequate light a plant will grow tall and spindly. If there is enough energy to grow leaves, they still may not totally expand. And without enough light, don’t plan on seeing flowers or fruit.

Even plants grown near a window will probably not get enough light during the winter months to thrive. There are a few things to think about when purchasing a grow light.

  1. Plants have photoreceptors that absorb specific wavelengths of light. Your light needs to have the same wavelengths as the sun, which is why a regular light bulb doesn’t work.
  2. The light should be as close to the plant as possible without burning the leaves.
  3. Most vegetables and other plants do best with 14-16 hours of sunlight or simulated light. There are a few ways you can tell if your plant is getting enough light or not. If it isn’t getting enough light, it usually will have small leaves, thin stems, and the color of the plant will be lighter than usual.
  4. A hormone called “florigen” controls budding and flowering. Long day plants require about 14 to 18 hours of light to produce just the right amount of florigen to flower and reproduce. Short day plants require about 10-13 hours of light. If short day plants are exposed to too much light, florigen can be destroyed, preventing blooming.

Selecting a Grow Light

There are a lot of different grow lights for sale out there and it can be confusing to figure out which type is best for your indoor garden. The following run-down should bring some clarity.

Incandescent Lamps are inexpensive and can be bought at a hardware store or nursery. While they work OK for growing houseplants, they are not ideal for an indoor garden.

Fluorescent Lights work best for growing herbs and other plants that don’t require a lot of light. They are not good for plants that are budding or flowering because they don’t put off enough light. Inexpensive, they can be purchased at the local hardware or garden supply store.

The new Compact Fluorescent Systems, however, are quite bright and efficient and in some cases might even be better than the fancier high intensity discharge (HID) lights. Compact fluorescents are smaller and more efficient than older forms of fluorescent lighting so they can be used for all plants. They also produce less heat than incandescent and HID lights and consequently can be placed much closer to the plant.

High Intensity Discharge (HID) Bulbs are the brightest and most efficient lights available, but they can be expensive. One 1,000 watt grow light bulb can produce the same amount of light as 50 40-watt fluorescent lights.

The High Pressure Sodium and Metal Halide bulbs are the only ones indoor gardeners will need.

High Pressure Sodium (HPS) Bulbs produce a red-orange light that benefits flowering. With an average lifespan 2X that of metal halides, high pressure sodium lamps are economical. This isn’t a great light if you are only going to use one, as it doesn’t produce light in the blue spectrum needed for leafy growth.

Metal Halide (MH) Bulbs produce a blue-white color that is conducive to encouraging leafy growth and keeps plants compact. A bulb will last about 10,000 hours and produce up to 125 lumens per watt compared to 39 lumens per watt for standard fluorescent lights and 18 lumens per watt for standard incandescent bulbs. This is a good light to start plants out with. When it comes time to flower, switch to a High Pressure Sodium bulb.

There is more to a grow light than just the bulb. You can purchase the reflector, cord, ballast, bulb and other parts separately, or buy a whole system that just needs to be plugged in.

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