Monday, March 28, 2011

More on Grow Lights

You may recall that a while back I posted an article on growing plants indoors under lights. The article recommended eschewing the purchase of expensive grow light systems and instead growing under simple two-bulb workshop ballasts, each with one soft and one cool white fluorescent bulb. These two inexpensive, readily available bulb types have just the right kind of light to stimulate plant growth.

After posting Read This Before You Buy Grow Lights, I received a couple of responses to the post, mostly from commercial vendors of grow lights of various types. I found one of those messages intriguing because it presented a concept entirely foreign to me: growing under LEDs (Light-emitting Diodes). Here's the letter sent by Alex McQuown, Research Director of EcogroLED in Riverside, CA:

"Hi Heather, I read your grow light article and I thought I'd give you a few bits of clarification.

"Fluorescent lamps are actually a pretty poor choice for indoor gardening. The output maintenance for the bulbs is rather dismal (as is the lifespan of any electrode-based lamp,) the heavy amounts of green light actually interfere with some aspects of plant cellular division and maturation, and the phosphors are not hitting optimal chlorophyll absorption peaks (two in red and two in blue, plus another huge photomorphogenic peak in the UVB range and potentially a peak in the IR range.) Also, due to the low efficiency of fluorescent lamps (approximately 17%) a ton of energy is wasted.

"You'll be forced to change those bulbs out almost every year to maintain the brightest output possible. Canopy penetration is pretty dismal as well, with a typical T8 lamp only being as intense as the sun almost literally on top of the bulb - this means the usable photon flux density is within a very short range - about 8 inches from the light is the maximum usable distance before the umol level drops below usable densities.

"For just over a hundred bucks you could buy a 50w LED system that would've covered that entire setup, plus increased your productivity several times over, you'd (practically) never have to worry about replacement, and the coverage is out of this world….

"You should consider LED lighting."

* * * * *

Unsure of how to respond, I forwarded McQuown's message to my UW-Extension Master Gardener Training instructor, Sharon Morrisey, who serves as a Consumer Horticulture Agent for the Extension. She was the one who taught us Master Gardeners-in-training that expensive grow lights aren't necessary for growing indoors. Morrisey, too, was unfamiliar with using LEDs as grow lights, so she communicated with her fellow "co-horts" at the Extension. UW-EX greenhouse manager Johanna Oosterwyk responded: she doesn't recommend LED grow lights for hobbyists, though she agreed with McQuown that LEDs are more efficient at the commercial level. Here's Oosterwyk's response:

"[McQuown] is right on several counts. An LED fixture is more efficient and can produce a better growth response than a traditional fluorescent, incandescent or HID fixture. There are two reasons for this. First, the energy efficiency of LEDs is well established -- you get considerably more light energy per watt of electrical energy. Second, although individual LEDs are small and their output is moderate, they emit light in a very narrow wavelength. Manufacturers use this as an advantage by wiring together an array of LEDs that emit in the wavelengths that plants absorb best (red and blue). As you guys remember from class, both blue and red are needed for specific development responses (germination and flowering respectively). So not only is efficiency increased in production it's increased in absorption and use as well.

"However, I would still not recommend them to hobby growers. The initial costs are too high (though coming down) and for houseplants you just don't need that kind of radiation output. In addition, though you won't find yourself replacing bulbs every few years, when you do have to replace LEDs you will have to replace the entire fixture (or at least the entire light array), not just a single LED. They are all wired together on an electrical board so it is not a simple matter to swap one out. LEDs are supposed to be long-lived, but their lifespan can be greatly reduced by over-heating, so an effective cooling mechanism is essential or you will be replacing your fixture long before the 50000 hours he cites.

"Also, I don't know anything about the quality of [EcogroLED]; for a comparable product look here:

"LED growth fixtures are new enough that manufacturers are still working out the bugs. Which LEDs are best? In what combinations? Does the housing keep them cool enough? It will be interesting to watch them develop and in the next 5-10 years. Maybe we will be recommending them to hobbyists. There's a large study being undertaken by several universities and Orbital Technologies of Madison (former students of UW Hort Prof Ted Tibbits) more info here."

* * * * *

Did you get all that? I know. It's pretty complicated stuff. The bottom line, I think, is that the two-fluorescent bulb approach works fine for those wishing to give a few flats of veggie seeds a head start indoors in early spring. For anecdotal proof of this, check out the progress of my two flats of lettuce started in mid-winter. This is how my "Pablo Lettuce" seedlings looked on January 28:

And here they are now (see flat on far left):

I've already harvested some of this lettuce and it tastes great!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Where do your seeds come from?

In early March, gardeners begin planning which seeds to purchase for spring vegetable gardens. Seed companies know this, so around this time seed catalogs start appearing in our mailboxes. One of the catalogs I've been receiving for a few years comes from Gurney's, located in Ohio. I'm also on their e-mail list, so I frequently receive special offers, sometimes daily.

Around the same time my last Gurney's catalog arrived, I also received an unsolicited catalog from a company called Henry Field's. So I thought I'd do a little comparison shopping by reading the catalogs side-by-side. I figured this would help me compare the two companies’ products and prices.

That was when I noticed something strange: I discovered many identical products in both catalogs. For example, I noticed that "Rainbow Carrots" were in both catalogs, with the same picture (flipped in one). This seemed off, but it wasn’t exactly shocking – many companies purchase seeds from the same wholesaler, right? No big deal.

Then, a few days later I received two seemingly urgent e-mail messages about major discounts at both Gurney's and another nursery I’ve ordered from in the past, Michigan Bulb Company. Both e-mails were formatted in the same way. Out of curiosity I read the fine print on each message. Turns out they are owned by the same company – Scarlet Tanager LLC.

Out of curiosity, I googled "Scarlet Tanager LLC" and came upon this fascinating piece, reprinted from Countryside Magazine.

According to this article, many seed companies are owned by umbrella corporations like Scarlet Tanager LLC (an organization that, quite interestingly, doesn't seem to have its own website). These companies owned by Scarlet Tanager give the illusion of small and local – when you buy from Michigan Bulb Company, for example, you might imagine that your seeds come from a family farm in Michigan. In actuality, as reported in this piece, most of the seeds sold by these companies are purchased at the lowest price possible from mega-corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto, as you may know, has gained notoriety after being exposed by documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn. These films and many others have accused Monsanto of patenting and therefore controlling their own genetically modified seeds, making it illegal for small farmers to save seeds from patented varieties. [Incidentally, Monsanto crafted a response to the claims made in Food, Inc. I’ll let you be the judge of whether Monsanto has a right to sue small farmers for saving patented seeds].

What I’ve learned from this experience is that one must be very careful when assuming that seemingly local, family-owned farms aren't connected to Monsanto. Take, for example, the Wisconsin-based Jung Seed Company. Many assume that Jung is a local family company and therefore worth supporting in the fight against GMO foods. I looked into the matter of who owns Jung and the answer is somewhat complex, but it does seem that there is a Monsanto connection. The company that was originally owned by J.W. Jung was later split into two groups – Jungs Garden Centers and Jung Seed Genetics, which is owned by Monsanto. Cf. this discussion thread at

To be fair, I've bought products from companies like Jung, Gurneys and Michigan Bulb in the past and have been satisfied with their products (with a few notable exceptions, like the "bare root" hazelnut shrubs from Gurneys that turned out to be complete duds). The tri-color butterfly bush, the Nanking cherry shrubs, the dwarf fruit trees – they have all been quite successful. However, I wonder, what is the true cost of buying these cheap frankenplants? Am I unwittingly supporting genetic modification, corporate patenting of life and the demise of seed saving by purchasing from these companies? These are questions I am now pondering as I prepare to purchase seeds for the 2011 season.

Where do your seeds come from? Do you make a point of buying only locally-grown, unpatented seeds? If so, who are your favorite local growers and seed sellers? Do you participate in a local seed exchange? Do you save your own seeds? Or do you simply buy seeds of those who offer the most interesting varieties at the lowest prices, regardless of who's selling them? Weigh in by leaving a comment below.

From this point forward, it is my personal goal to stick to buying only heirloom varieties of seeds (which are not patented or genetically modified) and/or purchasing from companies that have taken a stance against GMOs and patents. If you would like to do the same, you may find this list helpful (use the search function to quickly locate Wisconsin vendors on the list). Or, join the Seed Savers Exchange,like I did,and get discounts on rare heirloom seeds