Today is the first day of Spring. Yesterday the garden preparation process began for another year, as I hauled the seedling propagation equipment (racks) into the greenhouse/ nursery (kitchen) to begin another season of raised bed adventure.
The racks live in the garage most of the year, and understandably gather their share of dust and the occasional spider web or two. So, the first step in launching the growing season is to clean ‘em up. Household cleaner and a sponge is usually enough- wipe down the lights and ballasts, and dust off the wire shelving. Getting under the bottom shelves is the fun part, as that’s where the spiders and their webs congregate. But not too many this year.
I used to get by with just a single rack. The silver one in the photos was the first I built, probably ten or twelve years ago. Fairly simple affairs, starting with a rolling 48”wide by 18” deep shelving unit with a pair of fluorescent shop light ballasts mounted for each shelf. Mine are hung using the chains the fixtures came with, along with “S” hooks crimped to the underside of the wire shelving. Each ballast has one cool and one warm tube, which more than approximates the fancy- and expensive- grow lights that you are encouraged to buy. These work fine, and in my experience the bulbs are effective for five or six seasons.
The black wire rack I built last year. It’s basically the same as the first, with the exception of using LED tubes as opposed to the fluorescent lights. I was worried about making this switch, but it’s proved to be fine, and the benefits of the LED lights are hard to beat. They are less weight than the fluorescent ballasts, use a lot less electricity and don’t have bulbs filled with nasty gas that can cause issues if broken. Again, there are ridiculously expensive “grow light” versions of LED tubes, but these are the ones sold as shop lights. I think a 4-pack of these lights cost about $50, which is considerably less money than four ballasts and the tubes to fill them. The LEDs should last a lot longer, too.
On four of the shelves are heating mats. These are absolutely needed to get the seeds to pop, as they raise the temperature of the soil about 20°F above the ambient room temperature. They’re needed only until the seeds sprout, then can be turned off. The seedlings will continue to grow just fine at room temperature. One irritant of this setup is the mats aren’t available in exactly the same size of the shelves, nor are the shelving units available in the size of the mats. That’s why they slop over the edges here and there. But they do the job.
The last piece of the puzzle is the timer for the lighting. The lights on each rack are connected to a power strip that’s mounted to the rack with cable ties. Each power strip in turn is plugged into a timer that automatically turns on at 5AM, and off at 10PM each day. 16-18 hours of light is needed each day to make up for the difference between natural and artificial light.
The last thing I did yesterday was to start the onions. That 1020 tray shown below on the shelf should produce more than enough plants to populate two raised beds of New York Early white onions, and one bed of Rossa Di Milano Red onions. I start them a bit earlier than everything else because they’ll get transplanted before anything else. Onions don’t mind the cold as much as other plants.
Next weekend all of the rest of the seedlings will be started. The list is in this earlier blog post, and I’m planning a new post here once that work is done.