Yard and Garden: Starting Seeds Indoors under Lights – Iastate.edu
AMES, Iowa — Growing vegetable and annual plants from seed often requires starting them indoors and transplanting them outside once the danger of frost has passed. While it’s important to use fresh seed, the right soil mix and containers, as well as appropriate levels of water and fertilizer, it is essential to have abundant light for the germinating seedlings to grow high quality plants. In this edition of Yard and Garden, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach horticulturists answer questions on how to start your seedlings under lights indoors.
Why is starting seed under supplemental lights beneficial?
Without adequate light, seedlings become lanky. Tall, spindly seedlings do not transplant well into the garden. For most homes, even the brightest windowsill does not provide enough light and the light is one-sided, causing seedlings to quickly bend toward the window, making them stretch even more. By utilizing a supplemental light source, such as a fluorescent or LED fixture, you can provide enough light to produce high quality, compact and stocky seedlings that transplant well into the garden.
What type of lights should I use?
For most home gardeners, a plug-in shop fluorescent or LED light fixture is the perfect type of light to use for seed starting. When shopping for fluorescent lights, look for high-output, full-spectrum (sometimes called “daylight”) bulbs. When shopping for LED lights, purchase full-spectrum fixtures that emit a high number of lumens (at least 3,000 lumens). Cost is often an important factor. When you consider costs remember to factor the cost of the fixture and the bulb. Fluorescent bulbs dim over time and should be replaced every one to two years, which is a cost that should also be considered.
Plants do not use all wavelengths of light equally. The blue wavelengths of light are needed for good foliage and root growth and the red wavelengths are important for flower and fruit development. Grow lights provide abundant light in the red and blue wavelengths and very little of the green wavelengths, which is why they sometimes look pink or purple in color. Grow lights can be a good source of light for seedlings but are often more expensive and not necessary. A full-spectrum bulb will provide red and blue wavelengths of light at a level adequate for seedling growth at a lower cost.
How do I set up the lights for my seedlings?
Supplemental lights need to be oriented relatively close to the seedlings to be effective and therefore need to be adjustable in height to accommodate the growing plants. For most fluorescent fixtures, the seedlings should be 4 to 6 inches from the light source. LED fixtures can often be set a little further away at about 8 to 12 inches from the plants. Hang light fixtures from adjustable cables or chains so they can be moved up as the plants grow or place seedling trays on blocks or bricks that can be removed to lower trays as they grow.
Provide adequate air circulation around the seedlings to dissipate heat produced by the light fixture. Place lights on a timer set to turn fixtures on for 14 to 16 hours a day.
How do I know if I am providing the right amount of light for my seedlings?
Careful observation of your seedlings will help you determine if the light levels are appropriate. Seedlings that are not receiving enough light will stretch and lean towards the light source. Use a brighter fixture that provides more lumens, replace fluorescent tubes with new brighter bulbs, …….
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