Make your own grow light setup

Starting seeds indoors a few weeks before it’s time to plant outside makes spring feel a little closer than it actually is, and if you enjoy gardening, it’s really exciting. But for those seedlings to grow healthy and strong, you’re going to need a little more light than a sunny south window can provide. The days still aren’t quite long enough to provide adequate light for seedlings.

Fluorescent lights for 16-18 hours a day will help your seedlings grow healthy roots and establish leaves.

           That’s why you need a grow-light setup. Many garden catalogs offer beautiful, multi-tiered grow-light systems that would make any room more interesting. Unfortunately, they come with a pretty hefty price tag, too.

My grow-light setup

            With seed-starting, I choose substance over style, and for an economical price, too. I repurposed a slightly worn, slightly rusty shop light fixture from the garage and moved it into the seed-starting corner of my basement. I don’t care how my seed-starting setup looks, just as long as it gets the job done, and at a reasonable cost.

           So here’s my seed-starting, grow-light system: it’s simply a 4-foot shop light suspended by chains from the ceiling, just a couple of inches above my seedlings, which are placed on a 4-foot-long table. The chain suspension allows me to raise the fixture as the seedlings grow taller.

           Specialized grow light bulbs that emit the full spectrum of light are available at most big-box hardware stores. But really, any fluorescent bulb will do the trick because it emits ultraviolet light that plants need to grow. I’ve used both kinds and saw no difference in my seedlings, which makes the regular, more-economical bulb my light of choice.

Choose your own style

            Not all seed-starting systems are the same. You may not want a 4-foot light hanging from your ceiling. I’ve also used much smaller fluorescent lights both in my house and greenhouse for smaller amounts of seeds.

           Try setting up your own economical grow-light system that works best for your own circumstances. The investment is minimal, and you’ll be rewarded with healthy, well-tended plants ready to go in the ground.



Tips

• Position the light so it’s about 2 inches above your seedlings and raise it as they grow. Positioning the light too far above the plants weakens its effectiveness, causing the seedlings to stretch toward the light and become leggy and weak-stemmed. I, unfortunately, know this first-hand. Fluorescent lights are not hot, so it won’t burn your tiny plants.

• Keep the lights on 16-18 hours per day to allow the seedlings to grow healthy roots and establish primary leaves.

• Avoid leaving the lights on 24 hours a day. A light-darkness balance each day is essential to plant health.

How large should your vegetable garden be?

It’s easy to get carried away when you’re planning a garden. Seed-packet displays filled with images of perfect vegetables and bright flowers are a definite magnet, as are colorful pages of seed catalogs. It’s easy to keep selecting more and more as you imagine creating the perfect garden. Then, when it comes time to plant all those seeds, well, you don’t. I’m embarrassed to admit to the piles of long-expired seed packets that I accumulated before I wised up and learned to buy only what I expect to plant.

Planning your first vegetable garden

If you’re just starting out, or haven’t gardened in awhile, your garden should measure about 10×18 feet with eight to 10 different vegetable varieties. This size will easily feed a family of four to six. This is simply a guideline, however. Adjust your garden spot to fit your particular situation: family size, available space, amount of time you can spend in it, and the amount of work you’re willing to do.

I always grow plenty of tomato plants.

Keep your garden manageable

Keep in mind that a too-large garden can easily overwhelm you and become a discouraging chore, and that’s when you’re more likely to give up on it. Instead, keep it manageable so you don’t have to spend too much time and effort on it. You’ll be amazed at your success — and the good food you put on your table.

Which garden vegetables should you grow?

Simply put, plant the vegetables that your family likes.

If your family eats a lot of salad, then plant lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, and, of course, tomatoes.

Think about meals. Do you stir-fry? Grow bell peppers, onions, peas, and broccoli. Does your family enjoy Mexican food? Consider various hot peppers. Do you create main dishes from vegetables? Potatoes, squash, eggplant, and spinach might be options.

       In planning your garden vegetables, consider adding a variety or two that your household considers tolerable, but not great. You may find that homegrown freshness improves the taste, and that vegetable just may turn out to be a family favorite.

       Plant an unfamiliar vegetable, just for kicks. If it’s not to your taste, give the harvest to neighbors or your local food bank.