Episode 61: growlights with Leslie Halleck
Leslie Halleck's book Gardening Under Lights (published by Timber Press) is a really welcome book for those of us who haven't fully dipped our toes into the confusing world of artificial light for our plants.
In this episode, I find out about what kind of light houseplants need, investigate the pros and cons of the difference types from LECs to LEDs and beyond, and discuss how cannabis growing fits into the picture.
I also find out whether you need to invest in a light meter, whether IKEA's LED offering is worth a look, and whether it's possible to buy a non-ugly growlight!
As this is a pretty technical issue, I am experimenting with offering a full transcript of this week's interview. Scroll to the bottom of the page to read it, and do let me know if you find this useful - I'll consider adding it as a weekly feature if so!
I am planning a special mini-series about cannabis growing, so would love to hear from anyone who's in the industry, or an amateur grower: who should I speak to, what would you like to know and what should I include? Drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Question of the week
Christopher wanted to know what to do about the dead traps on his venus flytrap: I suggested that the traps should be cut off with a pair of clean nail scissors, but this wasn't essential. What about insect husks though? I advise leaving these in situ as you may trigger traps unnecessarily by trying to remove them. The book I name is The Savage Garden by Peter D'Amato: listen to my flytrap special for more info on how to look after this carnivorous plant.
Want to ask me a question? Tweet @janeperrone, leave a message on my Facebook page or email email@example.com. There's an episode about moth orchids coming soon, so I'd particularly like to hear from anyone with a Phalaenopsis problem to solve.
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In full: Leslie Halleck interview transcript
Jane P: [00:00:19] This is the podcast for people who find houseplants irresistible! You know what I mean. You're walking along, minding your own beeswax and then suddenly you spot something in the window of a florist a junk shop or even one of those trendy clothing stores that sells houseplants. Now you know it has to be yours. I've added to my collection this week and it's a little bit worrying because I don't quite know where I'm going to put all the new plants, but hey, that's a good problem right? In fact this week's episode number 61 is the ideal episode to help me with this dilemma because I'm talking about growlights, those wonderful inventions that can help you grow house plants in parts of your dwelling that you never thought would be suitable - help you keep your succulents stocky rather than leggy during the winter off season and generally up your houseplant game, plus I have a Q and A about Venus fly traps traps and a request for help from those of you who grow cannabis and the exciting news about upcoming episodes. That actually have to admit I find the world of growlights anything but relaxing. There were so many different options - lights, systems, prices. I just don't know what I'm looking at or what I need. In the James Wong episode we heard James talking about how great the IKEA LEDs are, but there is a whole world of grow lights out there, incorporating all different kinds of lighting technology and indeed price points from a couple of quid or dollars right up to hundreds.
[00:02:13] So I needed somebody who could really break this all down for me. And that's where Leslie Halleck comes in. She's a horticulturist based in Texas and she's the author of a great new book published by Timber Press called Gardening Under Lights. The complete guide for indoor growers. This book really made me jump for joy because it breaks down in terms that even I can understand the pros and cons of the various forms of growlights, and how to use them on specific types of plants. Basically everything you need to know to get started with your growlight journey whether you're an absolute beginner like me or somebody who's already dabbled with a few T5s and the odd LED. First I wanted to find out what growlamps can actually do for the average house plant grower - not to mention their plants.
Leslie H: [00:03:00] Well you know as urbanization continues to intensify, more people moving into urban environments, perhaps living in smaller spaces staying in apartments longer, many people are really craving the ability to bring some nature indoors or even just cultivate collections of plants. That's becoming yet again intensely popular. Well even as a horticulturist my home is incredibly dark I don't have near enough light in my home to grow what I want to. And that's the case for many people indoors whether they want to grow foliage plants or they want to get into food production. So what grow lighting of varying scales allow you to do is cultivate plants indoors 12 months out of the year or for seasons that you may not be able to keep them outdoors in spaces where you traditionally wouldn't have enough light.
Leslie H: [00:03:53] So I find that grow lighting is useful from the level of somebody wanting to keep one Pilea peperomioides, the Chinese money plant - so so trendy right now - alive in their apartment or dorm room up to people who really want to do more food production you know they want to grow tomatoes inside you know or you know keep an orchid in bloom so it really runs the scale from keeping individual house plants and African violets and foliage and orchids up to more intensive production so it can be useful to you no matter what level that you're keeping plants or that you're starting.
Jane P: [00:04:35] Let's just go and talk about lights. Now, all light is not equal as I seem to be learning from reading your book. Can you just explain a bit about what kind of light houseplants or plants generally need in terms of making photosynthesis work and how that's offered by grow lights. Sure and that's one of the topics that I try to digest not dumb it down but make it a little cleaner and simpler to understand because as you've said you know light science it can be intimidating it's a big topic and the ways in which it's commonly addressed in some of the publications that are available really in my opinion aren't relevant to the home gardener so I do go into explanations of how plants use light versus how we as people use light and that's how I break down the difference between the lights that you're generally going to use in your home for visual brightness versus the light that's meaningful to plants.
Leslie H: [00:05:32] Plants see light differently than people see light and there are certain wavelengths of light that are required in order to generate photosynthesis which is what you're trying to get for a plant. For people we need brightness so we can see plants need a spectrum of light that's conducive to driving photosynthesis and generally blue and red light within the visual light spectrum are going to be the two types of light that are most efficient at driving photosynthesis - red light specifically which is why you will see a lot of LED what I call dual band LEDs that blend only red and blue light to give you pink or purple light. So that's why you see a lot of grow lights that amid a pink colored light. Because what they're trying to do is most efficiently drive growth for that plant with red and blue light, so certainly the spectrums of light and the amount of light that can be used by a plant is going to be different in different growlights depending on how they're manufactured and how they're calibrated. So there will be differences between the light that you use to brighten up your kitchen vs. a growlamp that you will buy to most efficiently drive photosynthesis or get a plant to flower and fruit. So that's generally why horticulturists such as myself will recommend that you go to actual plant growlights versus just using the lamps that you might have in your house. Not to say that there isn't some crossover use of some of those lights.
Jane P: [00:07:06] The instinct is to think well I can just stick it under this light bulb and it's gonna help in some way or other. I guess it might do if you really want to get a bit of efficiency going here, then the growlight is the way to go. And then the other issue gets complicated with green lights it seems to me is that there are so many different options out there. Fluorescent tubes LCD lights now coming onto the scene. Are LED lights so good and efficient and excellent that we're going to be very soon just talking about LED lights - are they going take over anything else or are there still pros and cons?
Leslie H: [00:07:44] Well certainly the LED manufacturers hope that's the case - I go into quite a bit of depth about the different types of lighting gear in my book, specifically because I want people to understand the benefits of each different type of light. So yes LEDs for plant lighting especially vertical farming and things like that have really exploded in the last few years so there's a lot of focus on LEDs but there's also a lot of people who don't understand plant growth jumping in the game of manufacturing LEDs so there's also a very wide array of quality. You get what you pay for an elite market. So probably some of your listeners who are a little more experienced in this category will probably speak up and say yeah I've bought a bunch. Ladies that were garbage. You know that didn't do a good job for me and I've had to buy new lights so you know you have to be careful with quality. Certainly though the advances in LEDS that's where a lot of people are putting money however just as with LEDs, some of the conventional types of grow lighting of what I call HID, high intensity discharge lighting, high pressure sodium lamps, metal halide lamps, ceramic metal halide, things like that are also advancing in efficiency and as of to date are often more efficient at plant growth than LEDs so that's not to say that LEDs don't continue to get better and better they do but they'll also cost you a bit more because you're paying for some of that innovation some of that R&D that's being done by the manufacturers so you'll find that some of the more powerful LEDs will actually cost you a bit more than say a really efficient high pressure sodium growlamp or LEC, a ceramic metal halide lamp. So I would say that efficiency across the board of growlighting is getting better. LEDs are generally in the forefront in terms of marketing and what people are seeing and because of their size and low wattage capacity they tend to be more versatile for home growers that may be or are wanting to grow smaller groups of plants or individual house plants vs. more intensive production - so pay attention to the quality, pay attention to where you're buying it from. And certainly keep an eye out for you know a lot of advances in technology with all types of growrights. But certainly LEDs I think are going to become more and more used by more home growers just because of their availability and ease of use at this point for sure.
Jane P: [00:10:18] As you say, we shouldn't discount all these other forms of growlights that are still very widely in use by lots of growers. Can you just take me through those various different options that you've talked about and explain the differences between them and the pros and cons?
Leslie H: [00:10:35] So what would be considered the old school lighting options are HPS high pressure sodium lamps and MH metal halide lamps and HPS lamps have traditionally been used to extend photo periods in, say, greenhouse production and also to encourage flowering, they produce a little more red light. Metal halide lamps produce a cooler blue light so they're often used for a lot of vegetative growth - so let's take cannabis as a example: traditional cannabis growers would grow their vegetative plants under metal halide cool light setups and then switch them over to say an HPS lamp for a warmer light to induce flowering. So that's an old school common regimen that you would see with with cannabis product in and in greenhouse production of many other types of floriculture crops those lights are still in use and they're advancing as well. Inefficiency and HPS and MH lamps are classically very efficient high - high efficiency options for growlighting and you can get them in varying levels of electrical use, so home growers can still can use these lights, they're not just for industrial production.
Leslie H: [00:11:49] And then another really interesting development that is related to metal halide lamps are what we call CMHs or ceramic metal halide also branded as LECs. These are lower wattage high light output options:I have a garage garden and thats where I have all micro tents set up and I'm using these CMHs or LECs, they pull 315 watts which is quite low for a high output growlight and I use them to grow tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers so they put out enough light that you can get good flowering and fruiting on food crops so that's a really cool advancement that's not an LED option but that's very accessible to a general home gardener that wants to do things in a grow tent you know in a few square feet of space. And then of course fluorescents: I always still get the question well can't I just use the big T12 shoplights and I always say well you can use whatever you want as long as you're willing to accept varying results. So you have OK results are great results - if you're going to use fluorescents which are still a good option and they're good and they're affordable, definitely use the HO T5s. That's high output T5s. Those are going to be the most efficient fluorescent growlamps so you can still get really good high output of light with these and with moderate heat output. So still going to be great for germinating your seedlings and growing young transplants or supplementing light for salad greens and foliage crops, things like that herbs that you might want to keep in the house. LEDs - boy, there's there's a huge array of options with LCD from little tiny ladies that fit into your home lighting fixtures that are going to be good for say one or two plants.
[00:13:41] You know an orchid plant or a another house plant that you love up to large HID high is what they're calling HID LED rigs so the LED fixtures are getting bigger and better bigger to put out more and more light so you really can run the gamut with LEDS from just single plant lights up to big rigs that you're going to put into a grow tent. One option that is sort of an advancement you'll see with LEDs are what they call HO T5 LED bars, and those basically replace your fluorescent tubes you have a fluorescent fixture with your HO T5 fluorescent tubes, you pop that out and you pop an LED strip right into that fixture. So it essentially replaces the fluorescent. You're going to see more of that technology and that's the type of technology that really is most available to the mainstream gardener. But I encourage everybody to look at all of the different lighting options because just because they have traditionally been sold to cannabis growers it's all the same science and it's all the same gear and you can use it to grow whatever else you want.
Jane P: [00:14:51] This is an opportune moment in the interview just to drop in a little request to any of you who have tried growing cannabis indoors. I am planning a little special mini series about cannabis growing as it becomes legal to grow a few plants a home in several countries in parts of the world. I'm increasingly fascinated by how the cannabis industry has impacted the houseplant world and vice versa. I'm hoping to talk to any of my listeners who would be prepared to tell me about how they go into growing cannabis, whether the house plants came first or the cannabis came first and how the two practices interweave with one another or otherwise if you're interested do drop me a line to email@example.com. And you can speak anonymously if you prefer. Back to Leslie so she can explain why she included details on cannabis growing in her book.
Leslie H: [00:15:47] Time is marching forward and attitudes are changing and so you know that was that was a consideration when I wrote this book is that this book is not a cannabis growing book it is a book for all of the sciences is there all of the gear is there and it can be used for whatever you want to grow. But I did think that it was important for those who are interested to get some basic information on that and you know have this be a way where there was a little bit of cannabis lite - to just maybe take the stigma away so people who are curious who know interested in growing it maybe could just at least learn a little bit more about the plant itself because it's just interesting so you know I think that the conversation is going to continue and it's going to become more mainstream but it's certainly not something that everybody needs or has to grow. For goodness sake you know it's totally a personal choice and then obviously as you say there are legalities that have to be taken into consideration and you know I even say in the book you know please make sure you understand the laws where you lived before you do this because I'm certainly not endorsing that you do this if you live in a place that you can't. I certainly have neighbours you know trying to crawl over their fence on a regular basis to peek into my garage when I open the door you know because they're trying to figure out what I have going on in there.
Jane P: [00:17:43] I've had a flurry of email press releases about attractive growlights that you can put into your living room and not feel like you're sort of living in a commercial greenhouse. Obviously the companies have really kind of latching onto this now. Obviously that's a hugely growing industry. Are they any good those light, and can they really work effectively these ones that kind of put style just as important as substance?
Leslie H: [00:18:10] I would say I'm very happy about this because I consider myself to be style-focused as well as scientific. I put a lot of thought into my living space and I want it to look attractive and but I also understand the science of growing indoors so that's been a frustration for me in that I want pretty growlights, I want growlights that look nice in my living room and aren't embarrassing you know that don't look like my closet garden in my living room. That's been the challenge and we're really just right on the cusp of this.
Leslie H: [00:18:41] I would say that there are some really good options out there. One lamp that I just purchased is from a company called SolTech and they're doing nice LEDs that are very very attractive and respectable for hanging anywhere in a living space. That's one that I'm actually testing right now myself. Most of these kinds of lights are generally low emitting grow lights thus far. So most of them are not going to be tomato plant ready if that puts that in perspective. So when you when you're trying to flower and fruit plants it takes a lot of energy and some of the Lower Light attractive lighting fixtures are not quite there yet but they're perfect for supplementing light for your houseplants and your leafy herbs and things like that you know that fiddle leaf fig that you so desperately have to have. And you put it next to the window and you think there's enough light and there still isn't enough light. Those type of LED spotlights are perfect for for lighting those types of plant material. We are probably going to progress I would think in the next couple of years to the point where we have growlights that are powerful enough for you to actually fruit things indoors keep flowers and fruit on your citrus plants and flower and fruit those tomatoes indoors and grow tent or in a living room space. So we're almost there, we're not quite there yet but definitely that's where the market's going and that's where I'm encouraging many growlighting companies to go because that's where I see desire and demand as you know I'm in an apartment and I want to have this tomato or citrus plant in my living room. I need enough light but I don't want it to be ugly. So we're we're getting there.
Jane P: [00:20:30] And when it comes to using that growlight to for that very purpose to kind of enhance the light that something like this and succulents or a fiddle leaf fig is getting. How do we know how long do we leave it on during the day. Should that vary in different seasons of dormancy and growth Is there an easy guide to know how long or should we just leave it on me wake up and turn it off when we go to bed. Is as simple as that?
Leslie H: [00:20:58] I wish it was as simple as that but it's not, and that's why I do in the book go through lots of different plant material and provide some general recommendations for for the length of of lighting that you should provide with your supplemental light. But understand that everybody space is going to be different the amount of ambient light that you may have in your home or office will be different from your neighbour or a caller or a listener that you have you know so it really depends on how much light ambient light you already have in that space and thus how much you need to supplement if you have a dark space you may be supplementing all of the light. And if that's the case you may need to leave those grow lights on for for a number of more hours.
Leslie H: [00:21:39] If you have a very bright space but it's just not quite enough for what you want to grow it may mean that you put that growlight on for three or four hours a day to supplement. It's just going to depend on how your plant is doing, if it's thriving the way that it should and do provide those kinds of recommendations. But it can get a little tricky with photo period and timing. So I hesitate to give you a one rule fits all but the most general thing I can tell you is that for most of the plants that I keep indoors whether they're succulents are Urbs in sort of a moderate to low light environment those grow lights stay on about 10 hours to 12 hours depending on on what I'm growing. If you are growing inside a grow tent for example where you're providing all of the light that plant is going to grow depending on the type of light you are using you may need to run that light 14 to 18 hours to deliver enough volume of light. So it really is going to depend on a lot of different organic factors being the light you have in your space and the type of lamp that you're using. But what I've tried to do is connect those dots for you in my book so that you can piece together the pieces and parts that you need to use and want to grow in your type of space to give you a relatively good formula.
Jane P: [00:23:01] Is there a danger that you can give a plant too much light and end up in end up damaging it through too much exposure either by having the light on too long or indeed by putting it too close to the light?
Leslie H: [00:23:15] Absolutely yes, you can burn things out so plants have essentially a metabolism and you know they need a break. Most plants need a dark period where photosynthesis is not running because if you're running lights 24 hours for example on a plant it's going to use resources much more quickly it's going to it's going to use water more quickly. You're going to it's going to transpire and lose water through the plant more quickly and unless you're able to replenish the water and nutrients quickly enough then the plant keeps running without the energy to run. If that makes sense so we can just exhaust itself essentially because it's not getting the inputs it need based on the speed that you're driving photosynthesis with all that you know continuous light in some plants actually tomatoes and peppers are a good example you can grow peppers under 24 hours of light without really losing productivity. Tomatoes on the other hand if you grow them under 24 hours of light you'll reduce productivity so they just can't keep up with with that rate of photosynthesis seedlings for example. They need a lot of intense light so you can place your growlights three or four inches above your seedlings. They need that or else they're going to stretch and fall over, but as they grow and put on a couple of pairs of true leaves you actually need to lift that light up and pull it a little farther away from those plants or your or you'll burn them because the rate at which they're using that light will slow down a little bit. And if you keep it too close to the plant you'll burn. And then you have plants that require different intensities of light from from a full sun plant to a medium light plant to a low light plant - put a fern a low light Fern under a very intense high pressure sodium lamp and you can fry it in 30 minutes. The tomato under that lamp will be perfectly happy, so you also have to take into account the natural environment that the plant you're growing thrives in to determine how much light and how close that light needs to be. So for example you can use the same grow light for a low light plant. And as in full sun plant simply by moving that light closer or farther away from the plant.
Jane P: [00:25:32] And would you recommend using timers for these things because I don't know about you but it can be tragic if you forget to set it on for a couple of days and then you'll plant is unhappy.
Leslie H: [00:25:43] Timers are sort of a standard add on feature for most growlights and there's lots of different timers out there to choose from from the really basic lamp timers that you use when you go on vacation to turn your lights on and off you can use those on your growlights - higher powered growlights might require a little more sophisticated timer. So yes always use timers because there's so many things we have to remember in a day trying to remember to to leave your growlights on for your ceilings exactly 16 hours everyday is probably not going to happen and then you accidentally leave them on overnight a few times and you burn out some seedlings so timers are a very inexpensive simple tool that will make your indoor gardening much more successful.
Jane P: [00:26:26] And with the smartphone being ubiquitous now, are there any kinds of apps or programs you can use or indeed products grow like products that work with smartphones in terms of managing everything so you can be sitting at your office miles away and managing your system at home?
Leslie H: [00:26:43] Yeah in fact there's a couple things and it's still emerging technology but I just talked to a lighting company the other day who is working on a yes smartphone-controlled LED lights that there's an app for. Right now there are actually timers that you can use that there's an app for. So you can plug your growlight into this timer that you sync up to your home Wi-Fi and you can control the timers. So that's actually a good sort of intermittent technology you can use right away, the lighting timer's or the electrical timer's that you can plug all sorts of things into and control from your smartphone. But yes we're we're getting we're getting to the point where there will be more of that technology available. So it's again it's developing but we're getting there.
Jane P: [00:27:33] I think over here talking to James Wong who is a botanist based in the UK in a recent episode he was talking about the effect that Ikea's growights have had on making this kind of a mainstream thing. I don't know what your opinion is on the quality of IKEA's growlights but it's interesting to see how they're making people actually consider growlights and that LED growlights are a kind of an attainable option, something that you can kind of get your hands on quite easily and sets up at home.
Leslie H: [00:28:03] Yeah we we don't have those released here in the U.S. yet. That's been something I think they've they've threatened for a few years, I know that that's been available in the UK and Europe but not quite here yet. I think that it sort of falls into that category of very low light you know options that are that are good for maintaining a small number of plants or leafy greens. They're not going to be very intense growlights that they're providing just just yet but I do think it does do a service in that it is making people aware that this is an option and it's also helping to make people aware of why they might be failing with plants indoors which is one of the reasons I was asked to write this book because there is so much frustration with categories popular such as succulents you know people buy them they bring them indoors in three weeks they have gone to mush because they've actually watered them but there's not enough light indoors for the plants to sustain that way and people want their plant collections. They want their succulents, they want their foliage plants, they want their orchids and many people just don't have enough light. So I think that the thing that perhaps the Ikea products are doing is creating an entry point certainly for people and making them aware. It's just that we have to be careful not to overpromise on expectations for what some of those smaller lower-powered lights can do - you know they're not going to give you fruiting tomato plants indoors but some leafy greens and salad greens and foliage plants, yes they can help you maintain those for sure.
Jane P: [00:29:39] It's interesting about the succulent craze because I'm sure that it's the same when you are but over here where winters are quite long and dark. Lots of people buying succulents and you just know that in winter you're going end up with all these Echeverias which are about 2ft long because they've stretched end stretched trying to find light. You know we only have so many south facing window sills to put these things on in winter.
Leslie H: [00:30:08] Even you know south facing window in winter is not the same thing as the south facing winter window in summer and so light volume dramatically decreases so you know you just aren't going to be able to sustain things that you want and even next to a window I have growlights right right next to a window - just because you put a plant in a window sill doesn't mean it's going to get enough light and I think that's what's confusing to a lot of new plant keepers or new succulent enthusiasts is they just don't have an understanding yet of of light volume, how much light plants really need and how much that light changes with every inch that you that you pull away from the window, how much light you lose.
Jane P: [00:30:53] Does the window itself cut out some of that blue and red light that plants need - is that acting as a filter also?
Leslie H: [00:31:02] When trees provide shade or windows you know filter light a lot of what. Often you lose as blue light and when plants aren't getting enough blue light they stretch - they get elongated. So that's why when you put a plant that prefers a little more sun into a shady spot it stretches and elongates, you get that internode elongation because there's not quite enough blue light for that plant to maintain its more dense nature. So certainly different types of windows will change the spectrum of light that enters your home and that's not going to be something that most people are going to measure: if you're a total plant nerd like me you're going to have a PAR light meter that's going to measure all of that for you and you're going to know exactly what kind of late you have where but that's generally not the sort of thing that most sane residential home dwellers are going to have. So yes there are ways you can measure that light if you want to get geeky and I talk about that. So I give you that option if you want to do that. But yes different windows can change not only the amount of light that you're getting but the type of light.
Jane P: [00:32:09] I imagine you are going to throw down at least 50 bucks or 50 to 100 bucks on one of these things. But is that something that's kind of worth looking into as a gadget to really get to grips with how much light you've got available?
Leslie H: [00:32:23] If you are windowsill gardening or countertop gardening and you're doing small collections of house plants, no, it's not going to be worth it to you. If however you decide to step up your game and you get a little bit more interested in this and you decide that you want to invest in some higher intensity lighting and maybe try to grow your tomatoes indoors that sort of thing you might want to do that. Now what I what I could offer is that there are some lower technology lower price light meters that you can sometimes find at the garden centre you know that you can put outside that tell you whether you're getting full sun medium light or a shady location. If you want to improvise you can certainly try using one of those if you don't want to spend the money but if you if you like data you know if you like which I love data I love style but I also love data. I find it really interesting because it allows you to measure all sorts of things that are going on with your ambient light as well as exactly what you're getting from electrical grow lights. So it's kind of cool. So if you if you want to get geeky but yeah they'll cost you. They'll cost you some scratch. They're not cheap. So we have to be serious about it.
Jane P: [00:33:37] Well you know I guess it's when most things that you know plants are quite cheap so sometimes some people like splash out on their gadgets. Why not?
Leslie H: [00:33:45] If you like technology it's a fun tool, taken out of parties you'll impress everyone, or run them away - one or the other.