Especially Seductive, Especially Elusive Winter Light

One week has passed since the solstice, and as the days begin to lengthen, my first instinct is to focus on the closest green plants at hand. These will actually begin to slowly pick up speed, waking from the long nights, as each day's photoperiod sends them irretrievable signals. It is at houseplants that I must look a little longer and closer. Outside, the changes are considerably slower, but still there. They just don't command attention at this time, other than routine winter maintenance.

I remember living by myself in my first New York City apartment. I was working at Mother Nature Exotic Plants, just a four-block walk. My apartment was a fifth (top) floor walk up, a half a block from Bloomies and another block to at least a half-dozen movie theaters. Sweet. But, sweeter still, my apartment had full, unobstructed south light. My small two-room apartment was crammed with plants.

My subject is winter light: natural, artificial and enhanced.

There is something ethereal about winter light. When it is bright and clear, the air itself seems luminous. Its short life is compensated for by its special radiance. But, how subjective of me. When it is gray and stormy, the winter light takes on a dark and mysterious quality, bluish, cold, and hauntingly seductive.

Subjective of me again. A plants response, as far as we know, is devoid of these human responses to abstract ideas. It is we who are the sentimental beings. And, so, for this reason we do everything in our power to benefit our pets, I mean, plants.

They are, after all, totally dependent on us if they are in our charge, indoors. I had four very high south facing windows. Probably eight feet, arched at the top. I installed a few clear, heavy glass shelves in each window. These were found on the street. I just had to cut them and emery paper the cut ends. In the city those days you could find anything for free or next to nothing. You just had to know which nights or early mornings to go out and which neighborhoods to scour. I learned how to cut glass with great success.

In no time I cut mirrors into panels for both sides of my window shelves. I stood them up vertically on either side of each shelf and angled all of them at about 15 to 20 degrees into the room. The light in my windows and throughout my apartment was multiplied considerably. I had exotic house plants blooming in mid-winter.

The added bonus was an easy way to defeat SAD, seasonal affective disorder, a depression-like condition brought on by the reduced light of the winter. My mom suffered from it. Newspaper articles still appear on the subject.

As another way of dealing with winter light, I built a three-tiered light table. (In the 1890s, Liberty Hyde Bailey conducted a series of experiments studying the effects of artificial light on plant growth. His findings showed increased plant growth and maturation and paved the way for additional research and to the commercial use of this "new" technique.)

My light stand was constructed of steel, those rather typical for shelving in those days. The steel was gray enamel, shelves about 2 and 1/2 feet by 4 feet. A simple matching framework supported these. I spaced them about 2 and 1/2 feet apart, one above the other. It was all nuts and bolts. What I did that was different was that I installed the shelves upside down: they served as giant saucers to catch surplus water. I placed a thin layer of gravel on each shelf to catch and hold moisture and, in evaporating, increasing humidity.

A study done in the early sixties found that the average humidity in a N.Y.C. apartment in the middle of winter was in the range of 17 to 19 percent. So, I benefited, as did my plants. I backed the structure with mirrors. This served as a light multiplier, much like the mirrors in the windows. Above each shelf I mounted a two bulb, four-foot fluorescent light fixture, and for the top shelf, I had one above, on pulleys. These were known as "shop lights" and were quite affordable.

Fluorescent lights are a great choice for plants. They supply the blue component of light under which plant's foliage flourishes. These bulbs are long lasting and economical to use. Just remember that the highest concentration of light is at the center and falls off as you travel outward toward the ends. And, as they age they begin to give off less light. Useful life is usually listed on the packaging, but an average is near two years.

I was fortunate. I was living in a greenhouse and I loved it. My best friend from the service, Tom, gave me a copy of Elvin McDonald's, The Complete Book of Gardening Under Lights. It was here that I learned that without the additional component of infrared light from my very generous southern exposure, the best thing for my gardens under light would be to have an additional input from an incandescent light bulb. It is the combination of blue and red that simulates natural light the best.

My light table was full of tropical ferns, fancy leaved Rex begonias, and some miniature blooming Gesneriads (African violet family). I wanted my plants to grow vigorously during the winter; so, I kept my light table on a timer where they received 16 hours of light and eight hours of darkness. This duration is what researchers determined was the best in combination with optimum light intensity.

It is a balancing act between light duration and intensity. The other elements of temperature, humidity, and nutrients I'll write about another time. My plants grew vigorously and needed watering and feeding regularly. I had succeeded in defeating the "winter slowdown" and the "winter blues".

If you are interested in having more houseplants for company, think outside the box. There are very many plants with low light requirements. There are a variety of lighting apparatuses, some with reflecting shades or covers. Some have clip-on handles for situating almost anywhere.

Some accept floodlights; some spotlights. With these two, a cautionary note about heat. If you place the fixture too close to the plant, it may suffer scorched or burned leaves. Floodlights throw a cone shaped area of light that can cover a nice sized assembly of plants. Just remember to keep the plants three feet from the hot bulb.

Fluorescent bulbs are by their design cool. Plants can be as close as six inches. Little fear of leaf burn using these, and they supply considerably more light than incandescent bulbs. A little ingenuity and skill can produce a light source that is a vertical column of fluorescent bulbs. And, it can look great. One friend of mine, Bill F., has a few in and around his many plants in his living room. It's downright exotic!


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on December 31, 2003

© 2003 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.