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Growing Plants Under Artificial Light: What’s Missing?

By J. Benton Jones Jr     12 November 2019 

Takeaway: Growing plants under artificial lights don’t always work out the way a grower hopes. Sometimes, plants just don’t thrive, even when every aspect of the indoor growing environment has been perfected. In recounting a friend’s failed tomato experiment, Dr. J. Benton Jones, Jr. ponders whether a less-than-ideal yield is due to the plant species.


Many years ago, a lighting engineer, who was also an avid home gardener, decided to grow tomatoes completely under artificial light.
He constructed a large, enclosed Quonset—a lightweight, prefabricated structure made of corrugated, galvanized steel with a semicircular cross-section—and installed the latest in lighting devices to provide the light intensity and spectrum he thought would be required by his tomato plants.
He wanted me to install the hydroponic growing system I had been using to grow my greenhouse tomatoes. He had made several visits to my greenhouse and was impressed with the yield and quality of tomatoes I was producing, as well as the water and nutrient element efficiencies the hydroponic growing system provided.
I installed my hydroponic rooting system in his Quonset structure. He selected three greenhouse tomato varieties that were in common use and one that I was growing. The plants grew well but they did not produce many flowering stems, and few fruits were being set and produced. He had all the measuring devices he needed to determine the light intensity and spectrum quality were both optimal.
Unlike a greenhouse, there was no natural light coming in. He made many changes in the lamp types and their configurations. I also made changes to the nutrient solution formulation to put stress on the plants and hopefully force them into a more reproductive state.
The tomato plants continued to grow without generating many flowering stems. After about six months of unsuccessfully changing the lamp types and their configurations, he gave up the project.
We talked about why the tomato plants failed to flower, thinking mainly that something was missing in the lamp characteristics, either their intensity or spectrum distribution. Neither he nor I were able to identify and correct the problem.

Turning to the Outdoors

Several years later, I decided to grow outdoors the tomato varieties I was growing in the greenhouse. To my surprise, the plants did not grow as vigorously as they did in the greenhouse.
Also, fruit yield and quality were poor. I thought about the lighting engineer and his experience. Maybe it wasn’t the lamp types and their light spectrum that were the reasons his tomato plants grew without producing flowering stems. Perhaps it was the tomato plant variety that was a significant factor.
Greenhouse tomato varieties are bred and selected for growing under greenhouse conditions, which provide filtered light, while those for outdoor production are selected for growing in outdoor conditions in unfiltered light. That could be a significant difference. Evidently, there was something in the outdoor lighting characteristics that was incompatible with the greenhouse tomato varieties.
When growing plants under artificial lighting, variety breeding and selection must be performed with these conditions in mind. Trying to establish good plant variety under different light conditions can be a reason for poor plant performance.
Now, I wonder if my lighting engineering friend would have been successful if the variety, or varieties, he selected were adapted to the light conditions he had established. I believe that in his experience, it was not the lighting conditions that were at fault, but the selected tomato varieties that did not conform to the lighting conditions he had established.

So, What’s Missing from This Equation?

I believe it all boils down to the plant variety being bred and selected, along with the lighting conditions generated by modern-day grow lights.
If growing plants under artificial lighting conditions is to be successful, the grower needs to have plant varieties adapted specifically to these lighting conditions.
Otherwise, the grower needs to accept that the obtained plant growth is limited by the genetic characteristics of the selected variety, which are not able to conform to the established lighting conditions.