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How to Start Growing Indoors
Written by Helen McMenamin
From Fall 2018 issue of Connected to the Land

The problem with starting seeds or growing most plants indoors has always been a lack of light. A windowsill is simply not bright enough, and at night it gets too cold – and then, if you’ve protected your plants from those hazards, it gets too hot by the window and your plants are scorched.

Full spectrum LED grow lights are a huge advance for indoor gardeners. They deliver full spectrum light that mimics the wavelengths of sunlight, so plants get the light they need for photosynthesis and healthy growth. Light is the number one requirement for healthy plants.

The LED grow light can come as strip lights with reflectors, or as larger versions of the familiar curly bulbs for around the house. They don’t look like something that belongs in a garage, so you can make your indoor garden an attractive feature of your home. The bulbs are long-lasting, and they don’t use an extravagant amount of power. It’s easy to put them on a timer to give your plants just the light they need each day.

If your seedlings are getting tall and leggy, you can move your growing trays up to about 5 cm below the lights. You can use aluminum foil to increase light reflection or add more lights. Adding another strip light is easy – they usually come with a connector, so you can link them to each other.

Growing plants under lights allows you to match the hours of light to the needs of the plant, or to your harvest plans. If you want vegetative growth – say, leaves and stems, salad greens, or leafy herbs – 16 hours of light each day is generally best. If you want fruit, flowers or seeds, 12 hours of light a day initiates flowering in many plants.

Tomatoes, especially patio types, are quite easy to grow indoors. Some plants are more challenging and may have unique lighting demands. They may need specific light regimes to bud and flower, as if they were outside. Plants that require specific day lengths are actually sensitive to the hours of darkness, and even a brief lighting can upset their flowering schedule.

Growing mixtures, especially seed starter mixes have advanced in recent years. You can grow in soil if you prefer, but most potting mixtures now use little or no soil. Peat, compost and vermiculite are more common ways to provide an anchor for plants and a growing medium that holds the moisture and nutrients plants need. Coir – a coconut fibre product – is also becoming popular.

THE PROBLEM WITH SOIL

The problem with soil is that it can harbor a wide range of organisms that can damage plants, especially when they’re vulnerable little seedlings. It can also become compacted and difficult for roots to grow through and maintain their needed air supply. Special indoor growing media avoid these problems.

Electric heat mats for under growing trays – once sold mainly for greenhouses starting bedding plants – are now available in sizes that suit home gardening. In warm soil, seeds germinate and plants grow faster, meaning earlier harvest and less risk of disease. Wicking mats in the bottom of trays maintain the right moisture level in growing media.

Professional growers can grow more plants in the available space, harvest much sooner and avoid many disease issues with hydroponic systems. But it takes attention to detail and some skill to keep the entire equipment running and clean, as different nutrient solutions are added to grow top quality products.

FERTILIZE, GROW & BLOOM

Future Harvest has developed complete fertilizers that provide 12 essential plant nutrients and several other plant health enhancers into easy-to-use forms to make hydroponics easier. These are different from “complete” fertilizers for house plants: they include all the micronutrients plants need to produce to their potential.

The company has developed a simple two-step nutrient system, with one package for vegetative growth – Easy Grow, which helps develop a plant ready for harvest as greens – and another – Easy Bloom – to help the plant set buds, flower and fruit. Together they form a system for newcomers to indoor gardening. They can be used with soil or soil-free growing media, or in hydroponic kits.

Future Harvest recommends trying the basic nutrient packs, to find whether you enjoy indoor gardening or just want to grow high quality bedding plants. If you enjoy your indoor gardening you can take it to the next level, with Future Harvest’s more advanced kits, to provide for the precise needs of the plants you want to grow.

Helen McMenamin is a freelance writer living in Lethbridge. Since coming to Canada for graduate studies, she has raised pigs, wheat and canola as well as writing and editing for several magazines and science journals. She is passionate about farming and the environment.