Let there be light!
But why does it have to be so ugly?



Essentially, I think we ornamentalists are in the business of producing and nurturing beauty in one of its most recognized forms: the flower. Oh sure, and seductive foliage, too. During the summer our job is easy: sow the seeds or stick the plants in and watch beauty happen. But what if you live in a zone lower than 7 and you want to grow flowers over the winter?

As an unabashed anglophile and reader of novels where the heroines wander out to the greenhouse, their skirts trailing after them, to flirt with their beaus and choose the flowers for the next dinner party, I have longed, yearned, lusted after a greenhouse of my own. Something along the lines of Angels and Insects (above), or maybe the one in Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers. But an English country estate is not in the cards for me, I fear. So this summer, I decided to create a mini-semi-kind-of-greenhouse of my own, inside the house, where I wouldn’t have to brave Buffalo weather to get to it.

We actually have many of the prerequisites in place: cool night temps (we keep the thermostat way low), good air circulation, and decent humidity. I can boost the humidity pretty easily. My big problem is adding light. The small room I am using has a tallish south-facing window, but it will need help. So I started surfing for lighting with great optimism, only to find that most lighting for plants looks like early penitentiary, design-wise. See, the thing is, as an ornamentalist, I’d like this room to actually be attractive, almost as attractive as the plants that I hope will thrive inside it. We’ve already installed some nice flooring and painted and plastered.


Am I crazy to think that plant lights shouldn’t have to look like something you’d use in an interrogation chamber? It’s also unclear which lights actually work for the plants and which are making fraudulent claims. Speaking of fraudulent claims, I’ve also wondered if the lights meant to simulate sunlight for people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)—you Southerners and Sunset-zoners may not have heard of this—might also work for plants. I doubt it, but they’re a lot better-looking.

So my search continues, but I do wonder why—given all the inventive lighting design I see for other purposes—the plant lighting people can’t get with it and create some effective AND attractive solutions for interior growing?

Oh, sure I’ll probably end up buying some utilitarian strip of flourescent lights or other, but not with much enthusiasm.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Can you not get some fluoro tubes at the right sunlight spectrum (as someone who used to maintain reef aquaria I can tell you there are some astonishingly good sunlight (and for that matter moonlight) simulating tubes available) and then stick them in a nice ornamental fitting of your choosing?

  2. The lights and housings will be made more attractive when the percentage of people using them use them for more than one reason. Right now they serve a growing function and thats it. The majority of people using them today are only interested in the results, and as such “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder.

  3. Thanks Tai, I did see SOME stuff like that, but was a bit confused as to how it worked with the fixtures.

    And sure, Trey, I understand why it is the way it is. That won’t stop me from ranting about it!

    Michele, I have yet to read Byatt, though I have enjoyed two films–A&I and Possession (though not as much).

  4. If I could find an attractive light fitting for any kind of light, I would be ecstatic. As it is,I have your standard industrial florescent hanging over my winter garden, which is also in a window. We get a high percentage of low-light days here in BC. On the praries, where I grew a winter garden in the front porch which extended across the front of my small house, I didn’t need any extra lighting.
    Talking of films with gardens, have you watched ‘Greenfingers: grown in captivity’ with Helen Mirren?

  5. Maybe the problem is nobody thinks of fluorescent tubes as “attractive,” so there’s no market for attractive fixtures. We’ve been getting Lamps Plus catalogs since we bought our house and I can’t remember seeing one decorative fluorescent fixture in there, even with all the wall sconces they love so much.

    Some greenhouse catalogs (Charley’s Greenhouses) sell track lighting, although what they offer looks industrial.

    I think DIY will be your best bet — I’ve read articles that advise attaching a fluorescent fixture to the underside of a shelf, which at least partly camouflages it. Charley’s has a plant table with lighting for the bottom tier (top tier meant to sit next to a window) on the home page.

    I’ve not ordered from them, so have no idea what their service is like. But you might get some ideas from the site.

  6. I saw a grow-light fixture that was made of copper and sculptured into a giant centipede, legs and all. It was custom-made for a little store in Eureka, CA. (I’m not sure the fixture or the business is still there). The plant collection under it was equally cool: a bunch of pitcher plants, fly-traps, and sundews. Have you thought about hiring a sculptor?

  7. I so do agree! My plan was to sew a kind of skirt for the uggly contraption – but I haven’t come around to it yet and I doubt I ever will.

    On the other hand almost any fluorescent light will do (no need to buy those expensive special grow lights), so perhaps buying some nice looking energy saving bulbs will do? IKEA’s SPARSAM (http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/70060613) do look better than the average glowing tube.

    Bear in mind that I haven’t tried this one out yet, but I’ll certainly work some more on the idea. Fake candelabra over my seedlings… hmmmm…

  8. So, I’ve given this a good bit of thought and haven’t quite gotten it all worked out. I’m delighted to see someone else expressing the need for attractive grow lights. I live in what I think is amongst the cloudiest places on earth in the winter. I’d like grow lights that are efficient and attractive. That seems challenging.

    As far as efficiency, I am somewhat convinced that the way to go is through the use of high efficiency bulbs. Sylvania makes 28 watt bulbs that generate the same amount of light as a typical 40W bulb:

    That’d be wonderful, and far more efficient than metal halides and what have you (the light isn’t as intense, but you can put the bulbs closer to create intensity). The bulbs aren’t full spectrum, but cool flourescents are reasonable for plant growth (tho not great for blooms). The systems are oriented towards businesses.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t built my dream system yet. Instead I’ve been using a turnkey system I put together from hellolights.com. They are oriented towards the reef hobbiest (which I am not!), but offer some neat solutions. I’ve been built a reasonable system out of their aluminum reflectors and 96W compact fluorescent bulbs. Not as efficient as my dream system, but very compact and didn’t require any wiring on my part.

    I’m convinced eventually I can cook up something prettier, and right now I am simply glad to see other people with similar wants.

    Having said all that, I was thrilled when I first got my 400W metal halide light. Unfortunately, it’s ugly and HOT, so I have retired it for the moment.

  9. Will, this is where I am at right now. I am looking at compact flourescents that have adaptors which can screw into normal sockets. They are 2700k and 6400k. 125 watts. Each is supposed to cover a 3’x3′ space

    I am hoping that 2 of these, well-placed, will be Ok for my 9’x12′ space with the existing sunlight.

    Do I have the faintest clue what I am doing? Absolutely not. I am considering going to the hydroponics store and talking to people whose livelihoods depend on using the proper grow lights. Discreetly.

  10. I have seen some people do some pretty neat things with a box with some flourecent lights in it. Make or find an attractive box to mount the lights in, and choosing a patterned or frosted glass or plastic for the cover. One of my friends housesat for the couple who put a large flourencent box in their kitchen with a nice but simple wood frame on it. Then they painted the light cover, so that when you looked up, it was like you were looking up into a tree. Branches and birds and clouds….it was really pretty.

  11. I have thought about buying some of those 125w lights. It seems like a reasonably good idea, so I will be interested to see how it goes.

    I am concerned about efficiency, but I am not sure about what is definitive. I think fluorescent lights should be more efficient than other options, but it depends on the size and what not.

    FWIW, the 125W lights offer about 10,600 lumens. I looked up a 250 W metal halide – it offers about 15,000 lumens.

    Other brands (that don’t seem to be plant oriented yet!) are more efficient, but not as intense.

    Good luck – keep me posted.

  12. I so do agree. HEY Lighting Designers… efficient does NOT have to be ugly. (or buzz).

    My citrus inside are dropping leaves like hail in my living room south window.

    Yes I can kluge together a box, but jeeze, what kind of see-evil-I-zation is this?

    Worth the rant!

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