Let there be light!
By CINDY HOEDEL
The Kansas City Star
I always take the first day of winter as a signal to catapult myself full tilt into a spring state of mind. It starts with plugging in my grow-light table thats it in the photo. Catalogs offer flimsy, expensive grow light setups, but you can make a sturdier one that works better for less money.
First you need two standard 4-foot-long shop lights. Metal ones hold up better than plastic. Look for used ones on Craigslist. Skip the pricey full-spectrum fluorescent tubes and use one cool (bath) and one warm (kitchen) tube per shop light for the same effect.
Next, build a wooden frame approximately 2 feet by 4 feet to mount the lights onto, side by side. Add 18-inch legs (metal or wood) and a plywood top. In this kind of a setup, you adjust the trays position rather than the lights. The trays sit on wooden platforms suspended by chains.
Set the grow table in an unused room or out-of-the-way corner. Protect the floor below by setting it on a piece of waterproof fabric.
Once you have your light table, you will need four plastic grow trays. Again, you can buy expensive kits with an outer tray, inserts and domed covers, or you can save a lot by going to a garden center that sells the components separately, such as Soil Service, 7130 Troost Ave. Just buy trays and inserts you don't need the domes.
You can choose inserts that have 32 or 96 planting cells per tray. With 96, the cells are so small, it is hard to keep them from drying out, so go with 32. The plants will grow faster and be sturdier when they have more room for their root systems to develop.
You want to sow seeds in seed starting mix, not potting soil. For best results, stir water into the mix in a bucket before putting it in the inserts. If you plant seeds in the dry mix and then try to add water, the water will bead up and not soak in properly.
The fun part, of course, is deciding what to grow. It is too early to start peppers, tomatoes and melons (I start them around St. Patrick's Day). Instead, think lettuces, greens and herbs.
Plant each tray with produce of similar germination rates (check the seed packet) and sizes. For example, fill one tray with leaf lettuces, one with stir-fry greens, one with kale and Swiss chard and one with parsley, chives and chervil.
I plant two seeds per cell. If they both sprout, I pinch off the smaller one. You can plant only one seed per cell, but you risk having a few empty cells if seeds fail to sprout. I use the eraser end of a pencil to push the seeds down to the recommended planting depth (check the seed packet) and scuffle soil back over the top.
Once you have planted your seeds, mist the top of the soil mix with water, then cover the tray with plastic wrap and set it in a warm spot such as a sunny windowsill or on top of the fridge. When the seeds sprout, remove the plastic wrap and set the trays under the lights.
It is critical to set your lights on a timer. Most experts recommend having the lights on 16 hours a day. Having the lights on all the time or not enough will impair the plants.
The most common mistake people make with grow lights is having the plants too far from them. The proper distance from the light tube to the top of the plants is just two inches. More and plants get leggy and weak.
Check the plants daily to make sure they havent grown too close to the lights and to see if they need water. I add liquid fish emulsion fertilizer to the watering can once a week.
In about eight weeks, your plants will be big enough to set outdoors against a sunny, south-facing concrete foundation wall or in a cold frame away from the house or on a sunny unheated porch. Lettuce and greens are fine unprotected down to about 30 degrees.
Or, you can grow them to full maturity under lights. Just remember to transplant them to larger containers. If you start now, you'll be eating home-grown salad before the first day of spring.