This past August, when the heat was unbearably oppressive and the mosquitoes were the size of birds in Texas (okay, maybe a slight exaggeration), I decided to set up the grow lights that I usually take up to our my daughter’s school for starting spring plants and enjoy them at home for a while.
Our first activity was to plant seeds for our fall garden. I let the kids decide what to plant and we ended up with broccoli, tomatoes and basil. I wish I had a picture of my son’s face the first time he peered under the humidity tent (which we use to keep a plant-devouring cat out in addition to helping to maintaining a moist environment for the seedlings) and he saw little green things sticking out. The look of both surprise and amazement was priceless. What was more impressive though was watching them grow real leaves and begin to look like the plants he picks out each year at the garden center. Although we have tried growing seeds in windowsill gardens before, even using the window with the best light, they usually end up surviving only a couple of weeks before they meet their end due to the challenges of too low of light and inconsistent humidity/watering.
About 6 weeks later, we were able to plant our seedlings outdoors and are currently waiting for our tomatoes to ripen. In addition to experimenting with vegetable and herb seedlings, we also put some struggling houseplants into our grow lights and have enjoyed watching them flourish. We are most excited about our nerve plants that we are planning to use to make some terrariums this winter. Our grow lights also turned into a butterfly observation habitat. Something kept eating the monarch caterpillars on our butterfly weed plant outside (since we closely monitor the caterpillars, we noticed one weekend that we went from having about 25 caterpillars to 5), so we brought a couple of the caterpillars in using an insect cage and continued to harvest leaves to feed them. Watching them get noticeable bigger each day and seeing just how much they consume was a great learning experience for the kids (and the poop--- wow do those little critters poop a lot – great fun for my son). Although we released a couple back outside once we noticed that the caterpillars stopped disappearing from our outdoor garden, we have two that made a chrysalis in the cage and we are hoping they will mature and fly off before cold weather hits.
Yesterday we just received our final project before the grow lights have to head back up to school – amaryllis bulbs. We are going to pot those up this weekend to give away as holiday presents. After the holidays, we will move the grow lights up to my daughter’s school so that they can start tomatoes from seed for their spring gardens and get a chance to observe the full life cycle of the tomato plant (a requirement of their third grade curriculum). Since their classrooms do not have windows facing outdoors, grow lights are the only way they can successfully grow plants from seeds. The plan for the spring is to grow recipe themed gardens with tomatoes as the key ingredient and then celebrate with a harvest party at the end of the year. The students are going to choose their recipe, but possible themes include salsa gardens, pizza gardens, pasta gardens and maybe even a ratatouille garden.
Hopefully from this log of activities, you can see the point I am trying to make which is that grow lights are an excellent educational tool both at home and at school. They allow you to continue gardening activities in challenging weather (which for us includes the summer, although I know many of you are heading into your most garden-challenged time of winter months). Yes, windowsill gardening is possible, but I don’t think I am alone in being greatly limited by optimal available space, so for many of us grow lights are the only way to be successful with indoor gardening pursuits.
My favorite reference book for indoor gardening is our GrowLab: A Complete Guide to Gardening in the Classroom (a guide I used even before I worked for KidsGardening). It includes an overview of what you need to get started, practical information about how to keep your plants growing, trouble shooting tips, a recommended plant list and much more. This book is a companion to our GrowLab: Classroom Activities for Indoor Gardens and Grow Lights which offers some of my favorite lessons of all times for teaching basic plant science.
Looking for holiday gift ideas for an educator or parent in your life? The GrowLab Guides would be an excellent choice. I know I would be pretty excited (hint, hint to my family reading…) to receive another set of grow lights so that I could grow at home and school at the same time too!