Gardening · Homesteading · Urban Homesteading

Homesteading: Why We Don’t Use Grow Lights

When we were urban homesteading at our previous home, in town and not rural, my love affair was with my Sunglo greenhouse. Since the greenhouse was just a few yards away from the house, I had electricity piped in. This meant I could run grow lights all winter long. And I really bought into how superior this method was, in our dark winters in the Pacific Northwest, where in early January we have barely 8 and a half hours of “daylight”. In reality on January 1st we have about 6 hours of “good” light.

I really loved it, that first year and a half.

I had so much growing in there, shelves full. I was growing strawberries in winter, citrus trees loaded, even radishes and lettuce. I was also running a heater to keep it at 55* or so inside.

While tasty to nibble on… also was just weird to know I was eating them in winter. It wasn’t “natural”. To me it was like being in 80* temps in Florida in December. Not natural to me at all…haha! If anything, if I was working and the lights kicked on, I felt off.

Our greenhouse was recognizable in town, we lived along a rail to trail, and it got dubbed the party hut due to the purple and pink hues. I had the grow lights tied into the heater so they were on a LOT in the cold months.

Then I had an eye opening moment when Kirk told me how much we had spent in electricity. I wrote about the true costs of urban homesteading and our two biggest expenses (plot spoiler: water and electricity) back in 2018, after we crunched the numbers.

And that was the main reason it killed it for me. It wasn’t sustainable over the coming years. And even though we were running a solar array to operate the fans in the greenhouse, in the dark PNW there wasn’t enough day hours to run a heater AND lights. Without the heat the plants didn’t do well, because they were growing too fast under lights.

And that led to reason 2 why we stopped using grow lights.

Plants don’t grow as strong under them.

I know many might argue, but hear me out. What I noted, and charted those first years is that while the plants grew – and grew fast – they were spindly and flopped over easily. Tomato starts had to be staked early on. Lettuce was very odd, It would surge up and then flop down, as if it didn’t have the strength to sit up. I changed lights, positioning and more. Then I noticed that my citrus trees while producing, were not healthy as they should have been. Scale set in, and I couldn’t get rid of it on them, leaving the trees weakened.

When we moved in early 2018, my greenhouse now sits 2 acres from the house. There is no power near it. If I need power, it must be run via solar.

As we approached the start of 2019, I knew I had to make choices. How would I start my next year’s seeds? In the house? I didn’t have the space to do that. So instead I did it old school. I started all my seeds in an unheated greenhouse. In a field. Did it work? Once I figured out the learning curve, it did. (And by the way, this works in any kind of greenhouse, even those cheap one year lasting pop up houses – I use them every year to stash my extra plants in!)

Getting the greenhouse prepped in late winter. I pot in 4″ pots because I find they work better. I am not a fan of tiny cell pots.

These tomato starts would be thinned and transplanted into gallon pots soon after, and would grow quickly then.

What I learned over the past 2 winters?

Start your seed planting season later than everyone you see doing online. In our growing zone you gain nothing starting seeds in January. Listen to mother earth. If she is asleep, it isn’t time yet. With grow lights I was starting far too early for planting outside. In reality the earliest crops don’t go out till mid-March (lettuce, spinach, other greens, dwarf peas). I’d rather have shorter, bushier tomato plants than tall leggy ones when I go to plant on Mother’s Day weekend, which is early May. Look at when the last frost date is for your grow zone. For example, we live in an open (but wooded zone) and our last frost can occur as late as mid-April to April 30th. In reality we are usually fine by early April. But you never know. That is a gamble that can back fire. So for us, I plant tomatoes on Mother’s Day Weekend. It’s past the last frost date, the soil is warming up and we have enough hours of light then. Plants grow quickly at this point. And they are not sitting for months waiting, using their tiny bit of strength to stay alive. Seeds need daylight to “wake up” but 12 to 16 hours of daylight in January isn’t natural.

Over the years I have received compliments over my plants when selling them – how strong and green they are, not all spindly. And I tell my customers “I don’t use grow lights, so the plants are stronger”. And that is key…they are naturally hardened off because of not using lights or heat. When you grow inside under lights you must back off the lights and then get them ready for the outdoors, taking them out in the day, and coming back in at night for a while.

Where if doing it in an unheated greenhouse, they are protected to a point by the walls. If a deep freeze is slated, the simple use of frost fabric over your trays will save the day. We have done this a number of times, and not lost anything, even when we had minus freezing temps. With it being used inside, it doesn’t get dirty, or blown away, and can be reused many times.

Now then, how do you know when to plant? Well, consult your seeds! Read when it says to plant “Plant indoors 6 weeks before last frost” might be one, or “plant indoors 3 weeks before last frost”. If you know April 30th is your last frost, then go back “x” weeks. A tomato plant might call for being seeded than in 2nd week of March.

No, I am not kidding: Your seed packets and last frost date are all you really need to use. If they don’t contain that, or you swapped seeds, just Google it!

Suddenly life isn’t so rushed in January and you can breathe a bit easier. Take that time to clean your greenhouse or garden shed instead. Or to sit inside and ponder life. Enjoy the quiet that winter offers. And save money on supplies, and electricity.

And what really confirmed it was the year I grew seeds that a seed company sent me to test, and then report my results back. I was sent seeds later in the season and I nearly panicked. They had sent tomato seeds as part of it. It was already mid April! Yet, I seeded them. And I picked ripe tomatoes on the same week as the seeds I started in February! The plants did what they need to do – get big quickly to reproduce.

Go buy seeds now, for spring will come soon. Start planning what you want to grow, and where you will plant it. And enjoy the quiet before it gets busy, all day long.