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Seed Starting Wars! Episode III The Return of the Light!


{Imagine the following as the classic Star Wars opening crawl:}
"In a galaxy not very far away..."
(cue fake Star Wars music)

Seed Starting Wars!

Episode III

The Return of the Light!


"It is a dark time for the courageous tomato and pepper seeds that have recently sprouted with so much enthusiasm, not realizing that the evil Darth Damping Off is sending thousands of tiny probes into the minds of the sprouts' caretakers, urging them to overwater. Even worse, the sprouts appear to be locked in a Stygian darkness from which they cannot possibly escape.

"All seems lost for the gallant sprouts, trapped in the cold and darkness of a world that chillingly resembles the Ice Planet Hoth, with nary a Wookie in sight. Then, out of the skies, a weirdly shaped ship appears and draws close. From out of the craft, a loud but reassuring voice resonates: "They need light, you dummies! BRIGHT light!"

A New Hope!"

{I always wanted to do that!}

Anyway, if you have followed our last two thrilling episodes, you now have sprouts up, plastic tops removed and bottom heat off (unless you are trying to start your seeds in a cold dungeon; then keep the heating mats on). The only thing missing now is light, BRIGHT light. And no, your so-called "sunny windowsill" does NOT count; not even to one. It is winter! There are few hours of sunlight to begin with, and that sunlight is at an extreme angle that is not conducive to photosynthesis. (Everybody out there who enjoys driving into the sun in winter raise your hands. Does anybody have their hands up? I can't tell because I am in sun glare and snow-blind).

Bright light. What used to seem like a royal pain in the shop light is now ridiculously easy to achieve. Yes, you can continue to use your old fluorescent fixtures; a two-tube shop light for a small batch of seedlings and a four-tube fixture for a good size batch. The rules:

Tomatoes will grow faster and taller than your other starts, so plan for that. Peppers and eggplants will not put on nearly as much height, so start out with them up on several layers of books, bricks, blocks of wood; anything that can be removed one by one as the starts grow large (which they mostly won't in just 60 days). If you want lots of peppers, start the seeds 90 days ahead of planting time instead of the traditional 60 and keep them in the brightest light (where no evil will escape your sight...).

Existing fluorescent fixtures should be fitted with new bulbs, as the lumens of light they emit diminishes greatly over the years. (Much like many of us.) Basic rules: Peppers go in the center of the light array, placed as high as possible; slightly touching the bulbs is better than an inch away. Same with eggplant; especially the Asian varieties. Then come the blessed tomatoes.

Read seed package descriptions carefully. Over the past couple of years true 'dwarf' or 'bush style' tomatoes (known as determinate varieties) have become a real thing, including my new favorite Tasmanian Chocolate; incredibly flavorful dark purple full-sized fruits that grow on four to five foot 'vines' (more like stalks) that require minimal support. But other varieties, especially most of the cherished heirlooms are "indeterminate", meaning they grow big, grow fast and act like vines. The smart money says to start these on a brick or two while peppers are up on five or six. Strategic removal of supports can then be used to keep all the plants equal distance from the lights (or close enough).

Remember: Tops of plants almost touching the tubes is great. Three inches below the tubes is as useless as a Lone Ranger holster without the cap gun.

Now turn off all the lights except the plant lights. Is every plant getting strong light? Be honest! If the answer is 'no', lose some plants or add some lights; but feel free to start a first run of lettuce and other greens on the outskirts, because they'll go outside much sooner.

What about LEDs? A resounding YES! I just did a quick search and found a dizzying array of LED shop lights, many of which looked super cool; and they seem to deliver about 20 percent more lumens than similar fluorescents (that's an edumacated guess; don't quote me, but I think I'm close. And of course, LEDs are much cheaper to run). I won't be giving up entirely on shop lights yet, as I have dozens of unused fluorescent tubes in the basement, but all that stuff will go into storage eventually (wait a minute; the basement IS storage!)

Then there's the new kid in town. Introduced via TV infomercials a few years back, these multi-winged LED arrays were first promoted as 'garage lights'. But their simple design (a standard Edison style base that screws into a standard light socket) makes them easy to use and easy to move around. Attach them to a {quote} 'trouble light' (an extension cord with a light socket at the end) and you can move them around willy nilly; up and down, over this way, over that way...

I've been using a pair of them for two years now and they are GREAT for seed starting and providing light for overwintering plants.

The Jedi have struck back!

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