It’s a fact of Wisconsin gardening. To get a jump on the season, seedlings for many tender plants need to be started indoors well before it’s safe to put them in the ground. This is nearly the only option for anyone experimenting with more obscure heirloom seedlings that commercial nurseries are unlikely to sell. Rigging a light to coax your tiny plants to grow indoors is not difficult, but the average DIY setup is not conducive to maximum growth.
Now two Madison science educators have improved the in-home illumination setup by crafting an attractive, effective and energy-saving alternative with their LED Habitats (ledhabitats.com).
“We go by the motto ‘To know a plant, grow a plant,’” says Hedi Lauffer, who started LED Habitats with her husband, Dan, and with help from her brother, Tom Fulker. The Lauffers have long been involved in science education. With UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Fast Plants program, they worked to get plants into elementary and secondary schools. “We needed high-quality light for growing plants in classrooms,” says Lauffer.
After LEDs started being viable for horticultural lighting, “We were struggling to find a well-made LED grow light,” says Lauffer. Cheaper, off-the-shelf LEDs use less expensive drivers, which essentially wear the bulbs out before they need to die. The Lauffers ended up having full-spectrum LEDs, calibrated to be most beneficial for plant growth, custom-made in Wisconsin, along with the circuit boards. The chips have an extremely long life with minimal energy drain, because of the quality drivers. Lauffer estimates the LEDS will last for 50,000 hours.
“It’s like art meets science,” Lauffer says. “It’s like looking at plants out in full sunlight; it’s beautiful.”
The Habitats work as seed starters or full-time indoor gardens.
Lauffer's brother introduced them to Klaus Messerer, a custom furniture-maker in New Mexico, who designed the LED Habitats cabinet. The lights are held together in a “dome” unit; a zig-zag design on the side allows the dome to be raised or lowered to change the intensity of the light, depending on the needs of the plant.
LED Habitats look a little bit like a bookcase crossed with a shoe-shine stand, but with a minimalist, Scandinavian aesthetic. The cabinets are made in the U.S. from sustainablyharvested wood from Alabama and are available in three stains: maple, walnut or cherry. The smaller version ($299) easily fits on a kitchen counter; there’s also a larger “pro” version ($699).
“We’re committed to this not being a disposable product,” says Lauffer. In order to cope with developments in LED technology, the plan is to replace lights in the domes as a unit — that way, whatever happens with LEDs, the dome will still fit into the Habitats. “It’s real removable; it’s almost IKEA-esque, the way it comes in and out.”
LED Habitats come with custom seed mats — one loaded with “power greens,” one with herbs and one with edible flowers. Power greens are red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, fast-flowering brassica, mizuna and Siberian kale; these can be harvested at microgreen stage, baby greens stage or kept growing to transplant outside at 7-9 weeks. They also come with an eco-friendly tray set and soilless potting mix. Seed mats are also sold separately, as are trays and LED grow lights.
Dan Lauffer is still with Wisconsin Fast Plants, but Hedi is now working on LED Habitats full-time.
LED Habitats are not yet sold in any stores locally, but they ship free and, perhaps best of all, come fully assembled. Take that, IKEA.
Editor's note: This story has been edited to reflect that it was Klaus Messerer who built and designed the LED Habitats cabinet.