An introduction to gardening under lights

This is the first article in a four-part series about the ins and outs of gardening under lights, both for newcomers curious about a different way to grow plants and for more experienced growers who want to build on their understanding of lighting options. Read on for the second, third, and fourth parts of the series.

plants growing under an LED light indoors
A variety of plants growing under an LED light indoors. Photo: Miri Talabac

Why use lights for plants?

It’s sensible to think, “why provide artificial light for indoor plants? Isn’t natural window light enough?” After all, natural light is certainly what the plants get when growing outside. If you’re fortunate and have sun-soaked windows in your home, you may have little need for artificial lighting. Anyone who has insufficient window light or who otherwise can’t utilize their windows for growing plants, though, would benefit from giving their plants brighter conditions.

We’ll address this in more detail in upcoming posts, but light levels play a significant role in keeping plants healthy, vigorous, and looking their best. Plant lights give you more control over this aspect of plant care.

Who benefits from using plant lights?

Anyone who doesn’t have ideal natural-light conditions for their plants would benefit from using plant lights (also called “grow lights”). You don’t have to be a tropical plant aficionado to make use of them, and anyone with an available power outlet can try it. Setups can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. Seed-starting enthusiasts can produce more robust seedlings, and anyone trying to overwinter a lemon tree, some herbs, an aloe, or patio tropicals could have more vigorous plants if their winter slog could be brightened with some extra light.

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Q&A: What’s causing a line of holes on my tree trunk?

Q: A couple of my mature trees have developed holes in their bark over the years. Interestingly, they’re in a fairly even pattern, running up and down or horizontally across the trunk. Do you know what’s causing it and should I take any action?

A: This sounds like damage from a woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The evenness of their drilling pattern is characteristic of this species. They spend the winter in Maryland but breed further north in the summer (and in westernmost MD). Although a tree might eventually succumb to heavy damage, often their pecking causes no serious dieback.

yellow-bellied sap sucker bird on a tree trunk
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Photo: Pixabay

They create small circular pits or larger rectangular patch “wells” in the bark to access the sugary sap flow. Insects attracted to the oozing sap are also eaten. They favor forest-edge habitat, plentiful in suburbia, where there tend to be faster-growing young trees. Hundreds of tree and shrub species can be used, but birds prefer those with high sugar content in the sap or those that are ailing or already wounded from prior pest, disease, lightning, or storm damage (and possibly excessive pruning).

sapsucker holes in a tree trunk
Photo: University of Maryland Extension

You may be surprised to learn who else takes advantage of sapsucker activity. Northbound migrants of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depend on these sap wells as an early source of nourishment before spring blooms are available. Porcupines (Western MD) and bats also utilize them, plus squirrels and several other bird species. Their chiseling, while perhaps inconvenient to us, is therefore invaluable to forest biodiversity. You can learn more about sapsuckers in Cornell’s All About Birds web database.

If you don’t appreciate their drilling on your garden plants, well…there’s little you can do. As a migratory, nongame bird, they’re protected from harm by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You could exclude them by caging tree trunks that are being targeted, but this will simply force the birds to choose additional hosts in the area. Plus, it would be difficult to mount and secure such a barrier around a section of trunk with multiple branches. Don’t treat the trunk wounds with any sort of sealant, as that may hinder any healing that does occur. If any branches die back, just trim them off.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun. Read additional articles by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

Q&A: Can you recommend plants that provide food for birds?

Cedar Waxwing dining on a Green Hawthorn berry. Photo: Miri Talabac

Q: This summer’s mysterious bird illness has me thinking…I’ve become more interested in birds during the past two years and would like to attract them to my yard with plants. Are there favored recommendations?

A: Bird-attracting landscaping definitely beats out bird feeders as the preferable way to bring these beauties into yards for easier viewing as a safer environment than a communal feeder. (While you’re at it, look into ways to discourage window strikes since plants, like feeders, could increase encounters with glass.)

Plant recommendations are going to be incredibly varied because the diet of birds is so varied, both across species and throughout the year. Site conditions in your garden will narrow down what may be an overwhelming list of choices. Here are some general tips:

  • Plant as much variety for which you have room.
  • Plant to provide food for insects and the birds will follow.
  • When looking at berry or seed production, consider productivity for each season.
  • Try to focus on native plants only, since birds will deposit their seeds beyond your landscape.

To pick a timely category – late-ripening berries – there are some notably popular species. Highly-ranked contenders for both resident and southbound migrant birds include Viburnums, Dogwoods (trees and shrubs), Spicebush, Virginia Creeper, Eastern Redcedar, Magnolia, Black Tupelo, Hackberry, Sassafras, Bayberry, Sumac, Hollies, and Hawthorn.

Cornell’s All About Birds web library plus local Audubon Societies are good resources for more thorough information on individual species diet, habitat preferences, and plant suggestions for both foraging and nesting.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.