Okay, it's one thing if you are growing a cash crop like marijuana in the guest room and need super high-intensity light to bring the crop in before the cops arrive. Or if you live in Alaska and morale depends on growing peppers in the house.
But what if you just want to start a few seedlings?
I'm don't enjoy starting seeds for the same reason I don't enjoy houseplants. To me, the entire interest in gardening revolves around the mysterious interaction between plant and soil and the million distinct species of bacteria in a gram of it.
Still, I start seeds in the house just to have the varieties I want and things like lemongrass that the nurseries around me don't carry. I use $10 shop fixtures from Lowe's with two $3 40-watt cool spectrum 48-inch T-12 fluorescent tubes plugged into each one. They are hung from chains that I raise and lower on an S-hook, and they are plugged into a cheap timer. For the ten weeks that the peppers and eggplants take, works fine.
When I was about to do my single TV appearance thus far for my book, which argues that everybody with a bit of soil ought of grow a little food, the producers were worried that I was leaving Manhattan out of the equation. I said, "Oh community gardens are fantastic! You can grow an amazing amount of food in a small space!"
"But what if you don't have a community garden plot?"
"Well, there are really nice containers for balconies and terraces!"
"What if you don't have a balcony or terrace?"
"Well, if you have the right south-facing window, you'll be able to grow lettuce and herbs."
"What if you don't have the right window?"
Sheesh! So I decided to press a little further into the question of what could be grown in an apartment without a ridiculous investment or completely uglifying the joint.
I called a gardening catalog business, which offered an array of grow light fixtures for between $100 and $350. The $130-dollar one was labeled "amazing" and had a photo of a fruiting pepper underneath it. I asked, "Can you really grow peppers or tomatoes under this?"
The answer was, "Not really." As in, without wind or bees, you have to hand-pollinate the plants and you tend not to get much fruit for the space anyway.
So I decided to be simple and just grow some salad in my basement for the TV demonstration. To show what was available in the marketplace, I ordered a slightly downscale grow light that was still considerably more expensive than my set-up, but also looked more attractive in photos. It was back-ordered and wouldn't arrive in time. Instead, I started my arugula under my cheap shop lights.
Grew fast, looked great,…and in the organic potting soil I used, even tasted just right, spicy!
Yes, my T-12 set-up is not as efficient as T-8 or T-5 bulbs. But the Big Box stores carry those, too.
Unfortunately, they carry them in a confusing array of unattractive choices that may leave the gardener wandering around in a daze. (Just to cut through the confusion, cool spectrum light is reportedly best for leaf growth and therefore lettuce and seedlings. Wikipedia tells me cool spectrum is a color temperature of 5000K or more. That number is marked on the boxes.)
I think grow-light sellers are profiting from this confusion. But are their products really superior? I put it to the crowd: Unless you are trying to get fruit indoors without a window, is there any reason not to just buy what the Big Box stores have got?