A glimpse under the grow lights – April 7th (or Survival of the fittest and vegetable infanticide…)

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Nova Scotia continues to be buried in feet, yes FEET, of white stuff. In fact, we woke up to another 5-10 cms this morning.  Usually by this time we are prepping early beds, assembling poly tunnels and seriously considering planting the early veggies outdoors under cover (peas, kale, bok choy, onions, beets, carrots, chard and spinach)…not this year. There is some hope in that the temperatures are warming up and there has been some melting but at this rate I am afraid it will be a very, very late start to the garden. Thankfully the grow lights are shining away and the early starts are doing well – the veggie babies may not have a nice dirty outdoor place to move into before they peak, but they seem happy for now.

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Potted up veggies, herbs and flowers patiently waiting under the lights until they can move outdoors.

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Columbine reaching for the light.

Many have been potted up to larger pots and some have graduated to another location with less direct light as we have started to run out of space under the lights.  My wee girl has a nice sunny window and found a little greenhouse unit that has moved into her bedroom as well for her maturing flowers(she simply had to have it…and I simply couldn’t say no…) !!

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She simply HAD to have it!! We added some lights to the bottom for a little something extra…

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A few of my Wee girl’s Coleus plants happy in the sunshine! (This is about half of them…oooops!)

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Chamomile, Impatiens and Rudbeckia – also in her greenhouse…ahem…bedroom…

We have had some casualties, sadly. This weekend, as we were potting up seedlings and starting new seeds (the 6-8 week prior crowd), we found many seedlings that had been burnt by organic seaweed fertilizer. Yup, unintentional vegetable infanticide. We had diluted the fertilizer even more than the directions had stated and waited until at least 2 sets of leaves had grown, but it was still too strong and in the end, only the strong survived….fail.  The bok choi and chard were hit the hardest, with jalapeños suffering a fair amount as well.  The cauliflower and broccoli fared somewhat better, with the strongest seedlings overcoming the weaker ones.  Survival of the fittest. And unfortunately this is the second year in a row we managed to do this…double fail.

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Damage from the fertilizer – discolouration and stunted growth. I am not sure if they will pull through. Has anyone else had this issue?

My wee girl was pretty sad and after we gave the lost seedlings a little burial in the compost bin we had a big chat about the circle of life. I never expected that gardening would lead to philosophical discussions of life, death and the afterlife, but am glad that I had the opportunity for this talk to happen over vegetables before she really has to deal with a loss of someone close. So as we continue to wait, and wait, and wait for the snow to melt, at least I can pass on a few life lessons and we can peek under the lights (instead of under frost blankets) to see what’s poking up!

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“Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” ~ Rafiki (after bonking Simba on the head – probably what I deserve!

Setting up my legal “Grow Op”

IMG_0164“Mama! I don’t think we have enough room in our “Grow Op” for all these seeds!!” Those words rang out loud and clear across Halifax Seed Co. from the mouth of my darling little girl as she loaded up her basket with pretty flower seeds she wanted to try to grow.  Completely oblivious… Many heads turned with smirks on their faces. I turned a very deep crimson and muttered that it was a family joke, we truly only grow veggies and flowers… We live in a quiet rural area, surrounded by law enforcement officers who want some respite when they come home. We really, truly only grow flowers and veggies!!

imageNova Scotia is situated geographically on the 45th parallel. Our last frost is not reliably until after June 1st and our first frost is usually in early October.  Our winters are wet and cold. Between November and February we get less than 10 hours of sun per day, not much is growing.  Our zone 5/6 gardens need a little artificial help if I want to be able to avoid paying for expensive nursery grown tender seedlings and still have the luxury of a variety of summer veggies. Without a heated greenhouse or direct indoor sunlight, grow lights are an excellent way for us to jump start vegetable seedlings and slow growing annuals at a fraction of the cost.  Outdoor season extenders are another way to get a few extra weeks of growing season on either side, but when combined with indoor lights, we are picking our first fresh salads of the season in April and harvesting tomatoes much earlier than usual!  The lights continue to provide salad greens and herbs from the basement all winter long when the treasures in our outdoor tunnels have gone to sleep or I have been too lazy to dig them out from under the snow.  We have tried some indoor dwarf bean, pea and tomato plants as well – the concept was very fun but the yield was not worth the effort.

IMG_1207When shopping around for growing lights I visited many garden centres and websites but the prices were overwhelming. In desperation I will admit that I may have visited some web sites of “ill repute” for tips on lighting requirements and cheap alternatives to Garden Center lighting set ups! These websites certainly led to some interesting conversations with my older daughter when I left the computer open to one of these pages by accident.  Being terribly indecisive, I tried both options. I purchased cheap  shop lights and fluorescent bulbs and attached them with chains to shelving using s-hooks to make them adjustable. It takes up very little space in the storage room downstairs and is easily operated with automatic timers and a small fan for air circulation. We purchased one small starter “proper” garden light for my little girl’s bedroom, and she absolutely loves it! (She even added some beads and stickers as bling!) Her bedroom light has served as a great comparison tool for my impromptu grow op downstairs. I have raised seedlings under both types of lights for 2 years and have not noticed a substantial difference between the bulbs, my hardware store version does the trick well enough for me!

IMG_1381Please don’t judge our basement “Grow Op”!  It has served us well in boosting our growing season, has given us a jump start on our seedlings and had paid for itself in the first year.   Growing seedlings indoors has provided a wonderful opportunity for my girls to learn firsthand how much work it takes to produce our family’s food, watching as seeds germinate, sprout, grow and eventually bloom and bear fruit.  It truly provides a hands-on science experience for them and their friends who visit and then return home with fun stories for their own families! The glowing lights from my wee one’s room has certainly generated some interesting conversation on our street and sparked some new gardening interest as well.

Here are a few photos of how I set up my “Indoor Legal Grow Op” in case someone else would like to light one up!

– I purchased a 10-pack of “Natural Daylight” fluorescent light bulbs for $29.99 and started with 4 shop lights, each light was $17.99.  I now have 6 so I can light 12 trays in total on 3 shelves

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– I attached the lights to metal shelves using S-hooks and chains so that the lights can be adjusted as the plants grow.  I keep them about 2 inches above the plants to keep them from getting too “leggy”

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– Using a power bar and a timer, I plug in as many lights as I need at a time to come on for 14 hours per day

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– I save plastic containers and trays to reduce costs and mess. I store them on the top of the shelving unit for when the seedlings need to be potted up into bigger cells

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– The seedlings grow quite happily at about 17 degrees celcius! A small fan recirculates air, builds stronger stems and helps reduce mold and disease

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– When the soil in the tunnels is warm enough, transplants started under the lights can go in the ground much earlier than those that are not protected

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I am still planning where everything will be planted for this year and what seeds need to be ordered, but the plants under the lights remind me that even in the dead of winter, I can provide fresh, healthy greens for my kids. As a small bonus, the growing  plants and bright lights provide us with a glimmer of hope that spring will soon be here.

“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.” ~Rudyard Kipling