Tiny farming: light rack

Grow lights, on!

Grow racks are back in business

Grow rack lights went on today for the first time this season. They’re only for the rescued houseplants (orchids, wintergreen, heather)—I guess every plant deserves a place in the sun—but, I’ll be starting super-early lettuce soon, a month earlier than ever, for an experiment in planting them out to the greenhouse at the beginning of March. Getting the grow racks ready is another familiar routine. In early summer, I remove the fluorescent light fixtures and the chains and dowels they hang from and store ‘em somewhere (last year, it was on the new Big Shelf). For spring, I dust them off, wipe them down, hang them, and a new seedling season begins!

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The Big Shelf

Storage space in the Milkhouse

The choice storage spot for tiny farm gear, especially during winter, is this giant shelf, where it’s warm and dry. It’s at the back of the Extended Milkhouse, the last 3-1/2′ of the old ceiling, propped up on the leading edge by a beam across and 4″x4″ posts. It would maybe qualify as an upper level, if you could actually stand up: clearance is only 3-4′ under the new sloped ceiling. It’s 3-1/2′x20′ (1mx6m) of up out of the way space…a big shelf! About 7-1/2′ feet high, I get up there by ladder. Only one season old, it’s still startlingly clear, orderly, and almost entirely filled with immediately useful stuff as opposed to sure-to-be-useful-sometime gear (though the inevitable packing boxes saved just in case of return already have a presence). It’s dusty up there. At this end are the many fluorescent light fixtures (12, I think) for the grow racks. They hang from chains from those dowels in front, and the dowels in turn hang by the nails from more chains on the rack! When seedlings are all done, I remove the lights and use the racks for harvest storage. The oscillating table fan is used to give newly emerged seedlings a bit of a toughening up, conditioning breeze. Down at the other end, stacks of 3″ peat pots and plug sheets and trays. Time to start seedling room set-up!

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Grow racks at night

Grow racks at night

Plant racks, light stands…I usually call ‘em grow racks. They’re filling up now.

Pushed to capacity, the three racks can hold a total of 36 trays, 12 each, or four trays per shelf. So, depending on the size of the plug sheet—I use 38s, 72s, 128s, 200s—I can start between 1,368 and 7,200 seedlings.

Sounds super-efficient. HOWEVER, it comes down to the light. With four trays per double fluorescent fixture, the light is pretty stretched, and a lot of rotating is in order.

Also, most of the fixtures are the old standard T-12 type, where the light is stronger towards the middle of the tube. You can clearly see the difference in growth if you leave trays in the same position for a few days. The newer T-8 type lights more evenly from end to end and uses less power, but I don’t feel like replacing all the fixtures (a couple in there are already T-8).

It’s an ongoing experiment to see which size plug sheet to best start in for each crop, given the light situation. That in turn determines if or how often I need to pot up to larger quarters before it’s time to transplant into the field.

All in all, I’ll get around 2,500 seedlings off the racks this year.

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Grow racks in action

Grow racks

The grow racks are starting to fill up. First trays of eggplant and peppers, seeded yesterday, sit up top where it’s warmest. The lights run 14-hours a day, on a timer, with an extra hour or so of early morning ambient sunlight from windows on three sides of the room.

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New rack ready to roll!

New grow rack

The new grow rack, lined up with its brothers, ready to go to work. The carpentry’s real rough, but it’s sturdy and tried-and-true functional. The addition of 3″ casters has created an unexpected PLUS: when the racks are rolled together, the overall light from the fluorescents spills across the shelves, giving a little more to the plants on the outer edges of the trays. This is good! There is a fairly big difference in early seedling growth from being even a couple of inches further from the lights. (Before, moving the racks around was a pain, and you need to get at both sides quite regularly for watering, rotating trays, generally checking things out. Yay for wheels!) In the end, most things even out, but you take every edge you can get and…they do add up!

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Raw materials

Grow rack parts

The materials for building a new grow rack just arrived. With this one, there’ll be three in all. It’s a bit a of milestone. I’ve used just two racks, built from ridiculously warped wood, to start literally thousands of seedlings over the last four years. Adding one more means a huge jump in production capacity. Well, 50% more, to be exact… Here we have wood, wheels (casters are a new addition this year for all racks), chain and dowels for hanging the lights. Cut up, screw together, add fluorescents…dead easy! And needed in the next few days when seed starting begins in earnest.

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