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Seed Starting II: Light!

In our last thrilling episode, we walked you through the successful germination of seeds. We will now remind you that, once the first sprouts are up, you should remove any coverings (to prevent mold) and turn off any bottom heat (unless you're working in an ill-advised chilly part of your home; then you can leave it on).

Now we must supply light. And no, your so-called sunny windowsill does NOT count. A heated solarium or sunroom might do the trick, but you should then be rotating the plants daily and keeping an honest eye on them; if they are tall and thin instead of short and stocky, they're not getting enough light. Don't try and rationalize this; 'leggy' plants are weak to start with and don't do well outdoors. A small investment in artificial light will reap endless rewards.

In the past I have strongly recommended four-foot-long fluorescent tubes, kept close to the plants; no more than an inch to an inch and a half away, as the lumens (a measure of light intensity) drop off sharply after that. Letting the tops of the plants touch the bulbs is fine; the bulbs give off no heat and the plants are getting maximum lumens. If you have the room, a four tube fixture is even better. Because you've doubled the light intensity, you can even have a little leeway with the distance between bulbs and plants, but closer is always better.

And plan in advance to be able to raise or lower the lights as needed. Most of the shop light fixtures that typically hold four-foot-long bulbs come with chains that allow you to adjust the lights. I found it easier to prop the end of the fixtures up on books and shift the books around as needed. Bricks and blocks of wood also work well, but don't allow you the advantage of being able to replace a thick book with a thinner one for in-between changes of height.

Then Diane and I adopted a pair (brother and sister) of kittens back in March, which proved to be better than Prozac at lifting the Covid blues. One problem: they tried to eat each and every houseplant, so the plants went out to our insulated porch and then outside when the weather got warm enough. When it was time for them to come back in, we housed them (and my best looking pepper plants) on the big table on that insulated and heated porch (the one room in the house where Monkey Boy and PeaceSee are denied access), and hung a four tube fixture over them. All was well until we got to January, when I had promised myself I would start my new pepper plants super-early because they grow so much slower than tomatoes.

But the giant island in the kitchen where seed-starting had previously been accomplished was now patrolled by the Terrible Twosome and I frantically searched for another surface that could accommodate four-foot long lights. Then I saw a TV ad for a 'super bright LED garage light' that looked like the kind of solar panel we use in outer space; it had three panels that unfolded to bathe a large area in lotsa lumens.

So I went online, searched "super bright garage lights" and was deluged with choices. Properly called a "deformable lamp", I eventually settled on a set of two, each with four wings of LED lights that promised over 12,000 lumens per fixture for a total of around forty bucks. That's a lot of light. And the fixtures screw into a normal light socket.

So, I then bought two 'trouble lights' aka 'work lights'. These are essentially extension cords that have a light bulb holder at the business end. I removed the cages that would otherwise protect a regular bulb from being smashed, screwed in my 'deformables' and hung them about a foot and a half above my baby starts, supported by the longest hooks I could find. (That distance is just a 'best guess' starting point; I will adjust it based on the leggy-ness or compactness of the starts below.

So for all of you who have been asking "what about LEDs for seed starting", I feel that this style of lamp may be an ideal starting point. Super bright, with an excellent color temperature, compact, affordable and easily adjustable. I will add that our Man With A Plan Fred 'MacGyver' Matlack recently replaced an odd-sized (three feet long) burned out fluorescent over-the-sink bathroom fixture with an LED version that included a new fixture for a surprisingly reasonable price, and reports that the light it throws is perfect. Someone just starting out and growing a few six-packs of starts could do worse than try one of those.

But the key word here is 'try'. I have no idea how my little experiment will work out, but it is allowing me to use a three-foot-long table and two-foot-long chest to start my seeds, kitty-kat free.

I promise regular updates.

Next week: WHEN to start your seeds (hint: It's generally two months before you intend to plant them), feeding, watering.

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