Q: I'm replacing many of the light bulbs in our home with the newer, energy-efficient LED bulbs that appear to be replacing old, ordinary bulbs and fluorescent lights. Can LED bulbs be used to start seedlings indoors and to grow plants? - Dan Frankheiser, Alexandria, Minn.

A: Shopping for light bulbs used to be so easy. Browsing the light bulb shelves now is a major task. Like you, we're also switching to LED bulbs, because for example a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb uses only about 6 watts, which greatly reduces the electric bill.

A comparison of the brightness, listed as lumens on the package label, can be used to make sure the LED bulbs are providing similar light as older-style incandescent bulbs.

Can LED lights be used to grow plants indoors? I did some checking and found that LED lights have been researched by universities like Purdue. They are being promoted for successful plant growth in commercial greenhouses for supplemental lighting.

In addition to being energy efficient, LED bulbs produce less heat and can be safely located closer to plants. Commercial growers were cautioned to choose bulbs that emit blue and red light wavelengths, which are present in the cool-white type of bulbs, because those wavelengths are more critical for plant growth than yellow-type wavelengths.

Although large, commercial-type greenhouse LED lights are proving successful, less is known about using household-type LED bulbs for home gardening. Based on light wavelengths most necessary for plants, cool-white LED bulbs would be the better choice. Or combine cool-white and warm, or soft-white.

Until more is understood about indoor gardening with LED bulbs, fluorescent tube-type lights are probably still the preferred option for growing plants and seedlings indoors.

They're relatively inexpensive to operate, and the long tubes distribute light over trays of plants better than round bulbs. Fluorescent shop-type fixtures that hold two tubes can be installed with one cool white and one warm white tube to provide a broad spectrum of light wavelength. If only one can be used, chose cool white. It's probably only a matter of time until LED's in tube-type format become widely available to replace fluorescents also.

Q: How many hours a day should fluorescent lights be kept on when starting seedlings? - L. Peterson, Bismarck, N.D.

A: Most plants, including seedlings, grow well when lights are kept on for 15 or 16 hours a day. A plug-in timer eases the burden of remembering to turn on and off. As important as daylength, is closeness of seedlings to the bulbs. Seedlings should be only one or two inches below the fluorescent tubes. If plants are too far from the light source they become leggy and weak.

Q: I'm growing geraniums indoors that I saved from my outdoor planters. They've grown quite well, but they're a little leggy. Is this a good time to cut them back? - Kathy W., Fargo.

A: After growing indoors all winter, geraniums usually benefit greatly from a drastic cutback in early to mid-March. Pruning all stems back to about three inches above soil line stimulates fresh growth from the lower portion, making a healthy, robust plant. Cutting back in March gives about two months for the plant to regenerate, before going back outside in mid-May.

If geraniums are not cut back but placed outside in May with all the winter's growth intact, the plant is often not as fresh and vigorous. The old stems tend to become woody and flower production can suffer.

Rejuvenation stimulates fresh stems and removes the old woody parts. If plants were cut back when brought indoors in fall, a March trim-up might be all that's necessary.

If plants were grown in the same soil or pot all winter, March is also a good time to repot and begin fertilizing.

When cutting back geraniums, don't worry if all that's left is bare stems. New leaf buds will quickly sprout from the stem joints, called nodes. January is a little early for geranium rejuvenation. Waiting until March is probably better.

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If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler at ForumGrowingTogether@hotmail.com. All questions will be answered, and those with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city and state for appropriate advice.

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