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An interview with Leslie F. Halleck of Gardening Under Lights

by Timber Press on June 25, 2018

in Gardening

“Once you begin acquiring houseplants, it’s easy to catch the plant-keeping bug. For many, keeping plants offers up an opportunity for caretaking—especially if you can’t own pets—and it’s very gratifying.” —Leslie F. Halleck

Gardening Under Lights offers three sections: an introduction to light science, advice on growing conditions and plant care, and guidance for more than 30 specific edible plants and ornamentals. How did you pick which plants to include in the third section?

I chose the plants, or groups of plants, that I thought both new and experienced home gardeners would be most interested to grow indoors. My goal was to give all readers a good starting place, covering a variety of interests. It was impossible to include all the plants I would have liked to, of course, but I tried to cover all the basics for popular varieties of veggies, herbs, medicinals, citrus, succulents, and even bonsai. I also included notes in each plant entry about other plants that can be grown similarly, so readers can expand their skills beyond the plants in the book.

Your book is packed with lush photography, helpful illustrations, and practical information about understanding photosynthesis, buying the right grow lamps, preventing pests and diseases, propagating, and caring for plants indoors. How has growing plants indoors changed during your career?

With the surge of interest in indoor growing, farming, and plant collecting—and of course cannabis—here has been an explosion in new grow lighting technology over the last few years. Not only are there many more quality grow lighting options for indoor gardeners, you can also get your hands on many new types of growing gear, such as grow tents, propagators, and hydroponic systems that are smaller in scale. There are also many new, small, self-contained growing units for growing fresh herbs and microgreens that didn’t exist until recently. It’s an evolving segment of gardening—luckily the science of how plants use light remains a constant. So, if you understand some fundamental basics, you can continue to adapt your indoor gardening techniques to the new technologies available.

Why should we be gardening indoors?

From a social perspective, our population is urbanizing. People are moving to the cities, where space is tighter. Not everyone has access to, or can afford, a yard (or a big enough yard) to dedicate to growing food. Modern gardeners want the ability to grow some of their own food indoors—which may be the only place they can do so. Even those of us who do garden outdoors want the ability to grow plants and food beyond our normal outdoor growing season. Growing your own fresh tomatoes indoors in winter is fantastic. A hyper-local food production system is crucial to the future of how we feed ourselves; more of us are looking for tighter control over how our food is grown and where it is grown. From a technological standpoint, I’d say that this moment in time offers home growers an abundance of access to tools and grow lights that enable them to grow things they never could just a few years ago.

How do you think gardening indoors will change continue to change, and how does Gardening Under Lights prepare gardeners for the future?

First, I hope to help shake off the stigma attached to indoor gardening. It’s not just for cannabis! While cannabis growers can absolutely use all the information I’ve provided to successfully grow indoors, most people just don’t realize that the same technology can be used to grow just about everything else. I think we’re moving towards a greater acceptance and interest in growing all sorts of plants indoors that traditionally haven’t been grown there.

Second, we’re moving, I hope, towards more integrated food-growing systems in our homes. There have been a few entries into the market of small, contained growing units for growing microgreens and leafy greens that are built right into a home kitchen. But we’re not quite there yet. Even with systems that claim to do most of the work for you, any professional plant grower will tell you that it’s not that simple. You still need to understand how the crop responds to all sorts of inputs, such as light, water, nutrients, etc., for a successful harvest. And don’t think you’ll escape pest or disease problems! My book gives you all the fundamental knowledge you’ll need for using any sort of system, even as technology advances.

You have degrees in both horticulture and botany, but you spent your first two years in college as an art major. Is working with plants creative?

I would say the fusion of art and plant sciences—especially horticulture—go hand in hand. Both disciplines feed a desire to be expressive and creative. Plants bring so much aesthetic beauty to our lives while also nurturing our bodies and minds. In terms of scientific and mathematic demands for indoor growing—there really aren’t any. I certainly offer up some detailed science and math for readers who want to expand their understanding of why plants will or won’t thrive indoors and how serious growers can maximize their yields most efficiently. But I also encourage readers to skip any of that content if they aren’t ready for it or aren’t interested. Experienced and new gardeners alike can choose the information I provide to get started with their desired indoor growing project. Then, as interest grows, readers can always refer to the more scientific information I provide to deepen their knowledge.

You have spent more than 25 years in the industry working in research, greenhouse production, public gardens, garden center retail, landscape and design services, and gardening communications. So, you’ve worked with every level of gardener. What does it take to go from a beginning to advanced home gardener?

I’d say the gateway into more serious gardening is typically a foliage houseplant. That’s how it started for me. I still remember the first potted plant I was given when I was a child: a bird’s nest fern in a yellow pot. I loved that plant, and caring for it planted a seed in me. Once you begin acquiring houseplants, it’s easy to catch the plant-keeping bug. For many, keeping plants offers up an opportunity for caretaking—especially if you can’t own pets—and it’s very gratifying.

An interest in potted houseplants often leads one to explore the world of orchids and succulents, followed by starting some seeds for a few patio or balcony containers or a small garden plot. Perhaps a containerized citrus tree on the porch or balcony. Then the vegetable gardening kicks in, and suddenly you’re a plant addict! Not everyone comes to serious indoor or outdoor gardening the same way, but this is a common path. It’s often when you’re trying to get an orchid to bloom, or start seeds indoors, or maintain a beautiful potted succulent, that you run into trouble with indoor light levels.

How have your gardening strategies changed?

Well, I started out as an indoor plant-keeper. Then when I ran out of room in my house, I started gardening outdoors. I’ve gone through every plant-keeper phase in the book, from tropicals, to orchids, to carnivorous plants, you name it! Growing food has been a big focus for me over the last 20 years, and I grow vegetables, herbs, and fruit year-round, as much as I can. I even keep chickens and bees in the city. Growing more intensively indoors was a way for me to extend my harvest and grow certain crops out of season. I also do a lot more indoor propagating these days.

What is the most recent addition to your own indoor garden?

I have a wide assortment of plants growing indoors right now, from citrus to foliage plants, blooming plants, and herbs. I’m currently starting new vegetable and flower seeds for transplanting outdoors in mid-summer to early fall–here in Texas, we plant a second round of tomatoes in July for fall harvest, so I must get those transplants growing indoors now. I’m also growing on a group of Meyer lemon tree cuttings indoors right now to expand my citrus harvest. I keep a rotating assortment of herbs indoors under lights in my kitchen. I recently rooted a number of cuttings from assorted foliage plants and succulents, and I have those growing under lights as well. I regularly start small containers of microgreens.

Oh, I can’t forget all my tiny unusual succulent and cactus seedlings, which I germinated under lights indoors a few months ago. They are all growing as a collection under lights on a small shelf in my art room. Come fall, my house and garage will fill up with all sorts of edible crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and all the citrus trees and herbs will move indoors under lights as well. It’s quite the menagerie!


Leslie F. Halleck is a dedicated horticulturist with a master’s in horticulture from Michigan State University. She is a Certified Professional Horticulturist (CPH) via The American Society for Horticulture Science, with more than 25 years of green industry experience in research, greenhouse production, public gardens, garden center retail, landscape and design services, and gardening communications. She currently runs Halleck Horticultural, LLC, a company that provides consulting services to green industry businesses, as well as horticultural consulting.

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