We’ve been growing our own veggies for some time and our early methods of germination and early plant growth seem to slightly change every year. We like to change things up, at least a bit, to constantly learn new things and optimize everything as best we can. It’s a challenge to start a garden when you don’t have much space, so new methods and techniques are good to explore.
Last year, we did over 400 vegetable starts in a 2×4 foot (8 square foot) area, so that’s our metric of what’s possible. It wasn’t ideal, we had to shuffle our grow trays around a lot to try to even out light coverage because out T5 light just can’t cover 30″ in width well. Also, to say the grow was bursting at the seams right before last frost is a bit of an understatement! We are going to try to produce a similar number of starts this year, so wanted to see what we could do to make things a little better.
One of the major changes to our germination process this year is the introduction of 200 cell plug flats. We purchased these after having a few inefficiencies with the 72 cell trays we used last year. The 72 cell trays worked great as a compromise between root growth and space savings. However, considering the level of production we’re trying to accomplish out of a small space, a 1.5″ square inch grow space that isn’t producing is a wasted opportunity. The idea behind these high density trays is to grow a higher number of seedlings than needed and select the “best of the best” for transplanting to a larger grow site.
From these trays, once the basic roots have established, we’ll thin and transplant the best seedlings into either a 72-cell tray or a 3.5″ pot, both of which will fill out a standard 10×20 grow trays perfectly. This will mean that every larger grow space (and thus more valuable space) has an ideal seedling for early growth to full garden planting size. We will try to maintain a single transplant step as much as possible, but the plants will tell us if they need more space later on.
The other major change this year is the addition of another 2 foot by 4 foot table for our indoor starts. We’ll be effectively doubling our start space this year, which will be used for more starts and to create a superior lighting footprint for all our plants. We were using six 10×20 trays on a 2 foot by 4 foot table in a 40″x30″ configuration. Frankly, the edges of the table weren’t getting good lighting, it exceeded the depths that our 6-bulb four-foot T5 lamps could reasonably cover. This led to some of our starts getting lanky and we lost a couple of full-grown veggies because of it. The expansion will allow two more grow trays and will allow more uniform lighting across a total of eight 10×20 grow trays.
So, given eight more square feet to cover, I had to figure out the lighting. We have a second identical 6-bulb four foot T5 light I could pull out of storage, but this seemed like a perfect opportunity to try something different.
I’ve been really interested in trying out LED’s, if only because they offer a lot of potential energy savings over both HID and T5 types of lighting. In Fairbanks, we’re paying $0.20 per kilowatt-hour (nearly twice the national average) and thus a return on investment is reasonably quick. I’ve done a fair amount of research into the LED market and from everything I’ve read, LED’s can now exceed the efficiency levels of HID lighting while using significantly less energy.
We decided to go with COB’s, or chip-on-board LED systems from Timber Grow Lights. These lights are largely used in cannabis production, however, PAR is PAR whether we’re talking about cabbages or cannabis. From everything I’ve read about this other application, performance and energy efficiency is beyond anything else available in the market today. I’m really excited about trying out bleeding edge technology in our garden. From what I can tell from deep research, we’ll be one of only a small few public gardeners using these lights for our garden production.
What impressed me the most about Timber was that they reached out to me and really worked with me to figure out what would work best for my application. They provided a lot of different options and were flexible in using USPS to ship to Alaska, which saved me money. Most importantly, they understood my application and weren’t rambling on about how my broccoli was going to have wicked trichomes and how my petunias were going to produce “dense, thick bud”, a clear misunderstanding in horticulture!
In the simplest terms, the new LED we’ve purchased will cost about $12 per month less to run (electrically) than our current T5 fixtures. Based on the specifications, they should offer better lighting compared to our T5’s, possibly as much as three times the performance and available light energy. If we can get as good, and hopefully better growth out of the LED fixtures, then it’s a no-brainer to make the switch completely to 100% LED. Nonetheless, our garden is too costly to replace with nursery grown starts, so we’ll be hedging our bets and running both systems for this year.
So, with the expansion, the total plant production out of 16 square feet could reach 600! This might be a bit more aggressive than we want to play as there are benefits to allowing plants larger containers. Mainly not having to water so often. Nonetheless, my hope is to eliminate some of the weaknesses of our current methods and start preparing for a year round gardening that we really want to get into. The hope here is when we get into a more permanent place to live, we’ll have much more space to accommodate a larger indoor garden that can facilitate year round production.
One last thing of local importance. Risse’s Greenhouse is currently featuring their “High Yield Plant Bond” that they do every year. This basically gives us local gardeners a way to turn $40 into $50 over the next two months. This is a 25% return on investment over two months and great if you intend to buy plants or trees from them. If you’re interested, head on up Chena Hot Springs Rd. Quantities and time of availability are limited, so get on it!
We’ll cover some of our newer, experimental grows in a future post, We’ve got a few new things in store for this year, we’re excited to share them with you as things develop!