In nature, every plant knows what it wants from the sun. Each task they must perform from sprout to harvest requires a certain spectrum of light. Growing any plant in your indoor garden changes everything. Here they must depend on your grow lights, and you must substitute the spectrum they need to perform at optimum levels through their growth stages.

Lighting Economics

Budgeting the cost of getting your indoor gardening venture underway, might have you looking at the least expensive grow light solution possible. If you’re like many newcomers to growing indoors, you will soon be wondering what you’ve done wrong, if you have inadequate lumens, poor light distribution or the wrong light spectrum. We’re with you on the cost of getting started as low as possible, and also the cost of operation. Still, saving $40-$50 bucks here and there could cost you far more in the long run.

Let’s say you’re just dabbling with the idea. Perhaps your initial project will be setting up a little hydroponic pot of basil on the corner of the kitchen counter. Be advised that the price tag of a GE Brightstick from your local big box store is tempting, but this is not really a growing light. It might have good spectrum, but it is severely deficient in lumens, resulting in leggy stems with few leaves at best.

Lumens are the strength of the light source. Spectrum is the color of the light. The best thing you could choose to grow with that Brightstick is a hosta or fern… something that thrives in deep shade. Your basil needs full sun to flourish, which translates to a whole lot more than its weak glow of 33 watts and 425 lumens. Without sufficient candle power, you won’t be enjoying much freshly clipped basil. It would take a case of grow sticks to get some sunshine going! You want a minimum of 125 watts and full spectrum daylight, so check into compact fluorescent lamps, which won’t be found at the hardware store.

One economical trial approach would be to use a standard utility ballast with a wide reflector and both an aquarium and utility fluorescent tube to provide the balance of light for producing vegetation and even light flowering. This approach has a number of drawbacks and it won’t do a thing for the aesthetics in your kitchen. You need to harness every bit of it and bounce it back at the basil. Which means… this is a laundry room or basement project. The light is weaker than a real grow light and must be kept at 6 inches above the tops of the plant at all times, accomplished with hanging chains an repositioning as things grow. Too close and the tops burn, too far and the plants get really leggy. Additionally, you need light reflecting down and from all sides to produce a reasonable amount of success.

Recreating A Reasonable Facsimile of Sunlight

There is more to this than hanging a light overhead. You still need to capture those weaker rays and give them to your plants. Outdoors, the sky is like a huge reflector dome, with most of the brilliance available to plants on the three sides closest to the sun. Even the side that is in the shadow has a source of light, until the sun sets. In essence, a light without any reflective materials around it and enveloping the plants you’re trying to grow, is more like the moon, with a lot of it’s light basically lost to outer space.

Getting started at indoor gardening on a budget, you might not want to invest in a grow tent just yet. You can improvise to recreate the reflective walls and ceiling, though once you’ve had some success, you’ll no doubt see the wisdom and the ease of a more abundant harvest in upgrading your growing operation. Surrounding your plants with glossy white or silver walls and ceiling bounces the light back so they can put it to use. This is why hydroponic systems have white surfaces. It aids in the plants’ use of all available light, and increases the overall economics of growing indoors.

If you’ve done much browsing about hydroponics and indoor gardening online, you’ve probably already seen a lot of improvised and makeshift ‘grow rooms’. People use empty cabinets painted high gloss white, customized plastic tubs, plywood boxes and simple wooden frameworks covered with white plastic like shower curtain liners or mylar film. If you don’t do this, the loss of light will have a direct and undesirable effect on your plants. Having now blocked the airflow with reflective surfaces, you must create a ventilation system too or decline and disease can set in.

More engineering and equipment is now needed as you work on creating the right environment. The question is, is it really economical to fail after investing only a portion of what is proven to be successful? Or is it more cost effective to use the proper tools and equipment from the start? What will you do with the cobbled together setup after realizing it’s just not working out? Chances are it has little resale value, and is an expenditure you could have avoided if you simply bought real grow lights in the first place. There are proper lights that are less expensive to purchase and operate than others.

 

 

 

Tammy Clayton

Content crafter and Senior Editor at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home. (Some feel she's got a perennial obsession, others say the problem is tomato plants.)

If you don't find her at the desk - check the gardens. When not writing and weeding, she enjoys a good book, painting junk furniture, and blending the harvest of heirloom tomatoes and chiles into salsas.