By Nancy TraverGuest contributor
My daughter bounded up the basement stairs today and jokingly asked, “Hey, Mom, are you growing marijuana down here?”
She had spotted my grow light and the tiny green sprouts popping out of the pots of dirt on the basement floor. “No,” I reassured her, “it’s the beginning of my vegetable garden.”
Yes, it’s the first day of spring in northern Illinois: The wind is blowing outside, a balmy 15 degrees, snow is on the ground, but it’s time to start your garden — with the help of a grow light. Most people in our area get their gardens going on Mother’s Day, which is the well-worn rule of thumb: Plant your garden around mid-May and you won’t lose everything to a late frost. But in the short growing season we have in northern Illinois, I’ve learned it’s best to get going early, especially with fruit-bearing plants such as tomatoes. If you start now, your plants will bear fruit earlier, which means you’ll be harvesting earlier — and enjoying the fruits of your harvest!
I became a grow-light aficionado last year when a neighbor gave me hers. (She spends every spring in Puerto Rico – lucky lady – so she had not been using her grow light, and I was fortunate enough to inherit it.) I’d never used one before but quickly learned the ins and outs by going online and doing my research. I discovered that grow lights are fun, easy to handle, take up little space and are relatively inexpensive.
Starting your garden on your windowsill is not nearly as efficient as a grow light. Seedlings require lots of bright light; when they don’t get enough light they get thin and leggy. In my experience, even the sunniest windowsill will not give your plants access to adequate sunlight. The best solution is to start your seedlings under fluorescent lights — in other words, a grow light! Don’t even consider using a regular incandescent bulb. These put out too much heat, and they can burn the tender leaves and stems of your seedlings.
Another advantage of using a grow light is that it helps take the bite out of our long winter and often very cold spring. If you’re itching to get out in your yard and bury your hands in the dirt, a grow light will help with those urges. Plus using a grow light requires you to pore over seed catalogs or go online and browse the seed websites — another distraction from the cold, snowy weather we suffer through in northern Illinois.
Even though you have to purchase a grow light, you end up saving money. You’ll be able to buy packets of seeds for $2.95 or less — and each packet contains dozens or even hundreds of seeds — instead of buying seedlings and small potted plants at gardening shops, Home Depot – or the pricey Chalet on the North Shore. Last year, I grew so many plants under my grow light that I ended up giving away many of my seedlings to friends!
The best grow lights are known as full-spectrum or wide-spectrum lights because they replicate 94 percent of the solar spectrum. One of the best grow lights I’ve seen is sold online by Burpee. It sells for $139.95 plus shipping. Burpee markets it as a table-top lamp, but plants can also be placed on the floor under this light. The height of the light is adjustable. To get them started, you should place the lamp about 2-4 inches over your plants. As they grow, you can raise the lamp.
Tomatoes are known as long-day plants, meaning they require at least 14 hours of light each day. If they don’t get enough light, your sprouts will become pale and leggy. But it is also important to remember that every plant needs at least a few hours of dark time each night so they can respirate. When it’s dark, plants exhale carbon-dioxide, and they can’t do this if your grow light is shining brightly 24 hours a day. If you fear you won’t remember to turn off your lights before you go to bed, you can also buy a timer, which can be set to turn off at 10 p.m. and blink on again at 6 a.m. This duration will mimic the hours of sunlight usually available in most spring growing conditions.
Place your grow light in a location that is not too close to a door (to avoid frequent drafts) or a heater. I like to buy seeds at a store such as Whole Foods that offers organic varieties, but I’ve also noticed that many stores are now getting wise to organic shoppers. This year I found a good variety of tomato seeds at Whole Foods in Evanston. I picked out Brandywine (a beautiful yellow and red variety), Roma and Cherry. I favor heirloom tomatoes, but I find that the hybrids do very well in northern Illinois and are often just as flavorful. One favorite is Early Girl, for obvious reasons: This variety will bear fruit earlier than any of her neighbors. Last year I planted lots of Speckled Romans, which are an elongated, orange- and red-spotted fruit. They were my biggest producer, but there was only one problem: My husband didn’t like them! I also think that because of their texture, the Speckled Romans should be used to make paste instead of eaten in salads.
It’s a good idea to do your planting under your grow light 6-8 weeks before you can actually transplant your seedlings into the ground outdoors. For northern Illinois, now is a good time to get your grow light garden going. When you are ready to plant, use any pots you have, plastic or earthenware. Sometimes I use milk cartons cut in half because they enable me to keep the seeds in neat rows and separated by variety. I also use the flowerpots I’ve saved from the previous fall. The potting soil you have on hand is usually suitable for growing your sprouts. Be sure to mark your seeds, so you know what you’ve got coming out of the ground. Don’t plant your seeds too deep in the soil; follow the instructions on the packet. Be sure your soil is moist but not soggy. Check your plants every day for growth.
Seeds will take 10-14 days to germinate depending on the variety. Around Mother’s Day, transplant your seedlings outside to your garden. Pat yourself on your back: Your sprouts have come from your own house and your own grow light. Happy grow lighting!