This article originally appeared in the March 2007 Newsletter of the Ann Arbor Bonsai Society
Up front I must admit that I didn’t really keep track of how much I was spending when I began this project. All I knew was that I was tired of having plants in three different rooms. As a result it was difficult to remain “mindful” of how each plant was growing. I also made the mistake of buying far too many tropical plants last year and was not prepared to house all of them as was required.
Some of the expense for this project had already been incurred over the past several years with acquisition of some of the parts. This always makes any project seem less expensive than what those final last components lead you to believe. It is also very easy to justify the expenses based upon the rationalization that fewer plants will die because better care will be provided. Whatever the reasons, the hobby definitely had me in its grips as I collected the last items to make this home lighting system a reality.
Initially, I thought I might just build the rack out of 2×4 lumber, use those cheap shop lights, and lightweight drainage trays, but after having gone that route in the past, I was pretty sure that I wanted something that would last and do the job from the start. This meant a trip to my favorite home improvement center was necessary.
Several AABS members have shown slides of their lighting systems in their homes. One of the more common elements is the metal tubular stands that are also used by Bonsai House. These stands are readily available from your local home improvement center. They come in white, black or chrome. Chrome is usually priced somewhat higher. I opted for the black. The stands are easily adjustable and have optional wheels that I also included. Much easier to clean up fallen leaves if you can move the shelving with ease. The unit purchased was 4 feet wide, 18 inches deep, and a little over 6 feet tall with the wheels. The stand is convenient for other reasons as well. The wire shelving makes hanging lights from chain easy and flexible. Keeping the shelves clean is also a plus.
Over the years I have bought dozens of those cheap fluorescent shop lights. Sometimes they work for years, but most often those little ballasts just don’t hold up and I’m off to the store to spend another $12. I was pleasantly surprised when I found four-light fluorescent fixtures intended for ceiling mounting. One drawback, I had to wire these and use some ingenuity to hang them from the shelves, but once I had the first one figured out the rest were a breeze. I did not buy expensive grow lights, but rather went with F40T12 cool white bulbs.
The Drainage Trays
Believe it or not this was the greatest challenge. There are horticultural plant trays that you can buy for plants, but often they are expensive, flimsy, or the wrong size. You also get funny looks from salespeople in home improvement stores when you ask them to “think outside the box”. Actually, the one guy went all around the store suggesting everything from cement mixing tubs to sweater boxes. The sweater boxes came close but they were too deep. What finally worked were plastic boot trays. I found these at Van Atta’s Greenhouse in Haslett, MI. They are 4 feet long and 18 inches wide! A piece of egg crate grate in the bottom allows water to run through but keeps the plants from sitting in the runoff.
The above costs may seem high, but this portable unit provides 12 linear / 18 sq. ft. of growing space illuminated by a total of 12 fluorescent cool white bulbs. The top shelf also can function as storage space. Better spacing of plants according to height would also yield more space and possibly the inclusion of another shelf, which is easy to add with these units. Arranging plants by height would also make it possible to bring the lights closer to the plants. Maybe that will be my project for next weekend.