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Gardening From Alaska

...growing under artificial lights
by Jeff Lowenfels
by Jeff Lowenfels


Jeff is the Past President of the Garden Writers of America, a columnist with the Anchorage Daily News, Host Alaska Gardens and Supporter of Plant a Row.

October 30, 2006

There is no disputing that Alaskans are crazy silly about growing plants. This is evident by the amount of time, effort and not to be crass, but the money we spend every summer in and on our yards and gardens. Yet we live in a place where there are three times as many months of winter as outdoor growing season and most of us don’t even own a cheap, two florescent bulb, “shop” under which to grow plants and seedlings during the long winters.

I have been asking myself why this is ever since I started writing this Alaskan garden column. That was back in the stone age of plant lighting, an age when there might have been an excuse for not having what I call “supplemental lights.” If you wanted to grow seedlings or support houseplants back in the winter of 75-76, you had to live with a pink-red glow from noisy fluorescent tubes that cost way too much considering their one-year life span. Their light was unpleasant to the point of being irritating and obnoxious. Moreover, the bulbs had to be no more than two inches away from the plants in order to really be effective and fixtures were universally white and clunky, which is why they called them shop light fixtures.

This was before researchers showed you could employ one cool white and one warm light fluorescent in that cheap fixture and support and grow fantastic plants for a fraction of the cost. No more pink glow. There went the big excuse.

Today, there are even more advances in lighting which provide options heretofore not available. And I ask, once again, when are you going to finally take advantage of them? You are a gardener, are you not? Nine months is a long, long time. For your own sake, get some supplemental lights.

I will stick with fluorescence for this column, starting with “full spectrum” bulbs. As their name suggests, they produce a spectrum of light that is as close to natural as you can get. These florescent tubes are now used in offices and homes for people, and they are no longer expensive or hard to find. They are cheap and you can find them wherever fluorescent tubes are sold. They fit shop fixtures and along with a timer are all you need.

However, if you really want to do it right, there is a new “grade” of fluorescents known as “High Output Fluorescents.” These put out twice as much light as do regular fluorescents which means they don’t have to be as close to the plants. They also happen to be much thinner than normal fluorescent tubes and though this requires a different kind of fixture that the old shop model, their thinness allows for 8 tubes where four of the regulars would fit. There are 4, 6 and 8-tube fixtures and even larger. The tubes also come in different lengths.

Speaking of fixtures, the white, clunky look is gone when you use HIOs. They are slim, sleek and decidedly not shop material. First there are different lengths. Colors include green, gray and blue and they are thin enough to turn a pantry shelf into a really nice little gardening area. These fixtures and tubes are very suitable for using vertically as well as horizontally. In addition, they are usually lined with a much better reflective surface than that shop fixture I keep trying to push on you.

Finally, there are Compact Fluorescent lamps. These are the fluorescents bulbs that fit into regular lamp sockets and were developed to get us off the incandescent bulb to save energy without having to retrofit the house. Turns out these bulbs, which have individual, built in ballasts, are more focused than the linear fluorescent tubes and when they are put into special reflectors and placed horizontally, make great plant lights. Who knew? What could be easier?

With choices like these, there are no excuses. If I may be blunt, there is a long, long winter ahead and you owe it to the gardener in you to set up some sort off system to help your houseplants. Grow herbs in the kitchen, may be even some lettuce or spinach in that cool spar room. Start some coleus, cacti and begonias. The light is the limit, not time. You have nine more months before you will be planting outside.

All of these items are available locally and you can obviously learn more by going to the internet. Do it now. Get set up this weekend.

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