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Friday, March 20, 2009

Easy seed-starting rack

I look forward to a favorite hobby every year at this time: starting seeds indoors. I like that you can start your own plants for just a wee fraction of the cost of buying them full-grown at a nursery. Plus, there are so many more seed varieties available than nursery plants, and you can tailor them to the length of your growing season by timing when you start them. (Click here for a Backyard Farming look at the basics of starting seeds indoors.)

I’m especially excited this year because my husband Jeff built me a rack with growing lights. Previously I relied on the sun alone, but had to chase it. I engaged in a game of musical flats, moving my many seed trays to different windows throughout the day – starting on the east side of the house, on the floor next to wall-length windows, then across to the dining table in the afternoon, then on the floor so we could eat dinner, and back again. To say this process consumed our household is an understatement.

This year I knew my super curious, busy, messy 1-year-old would make short work of pots of soil on the floor. So my husband and I investigated different options for a seed rack.

We found cool commercial systems, but didn’t like the high cost: upwards of $100 for something that would fit one flat, maybe two.

Savvy marketing for such grow light systems pins on the idea that you MUST have a special bulb for your seeds, and that it must fit into their special fixture. But after doing some research with the state extension service, Jeff and I learned that standard fluorescent bulbs – a.k.a. shop lights -- work perfectly well. Ah-hah! Talk about a light-bulb moment to encourage doing it yourself!

So here’s how to make a rack:

Using boards we already had in our garage, Jeff made a simple open-backed shelf. The diagonal crosspiece on the back adds stability. He used screws, so at season’s end we can disassemble it and stuff it right back in the garage.

Our rack is slightly wider than four feet, to accommodate basic shop light fixtures. (Fluorescent bulbs are also available in two-foot lengths.) The fixtures are suspended on simple hooks from the shelf above. The chains give us the flexibility to move the lights higher as seedlings get taller. Two flats fit on each shelf. Although the top shelf isn’t equipped with a light fixture, the rack’s placement in front of a window gives me more space.

Jeff spaced the shelves so I don’t have to crouch to tend the seedlings – I can sit on the floor for the bottom one, or stand for the other. They are about 27 inches apart. Depending on how things go this season, we may alter the shelf spacing, but we decided to err on having more room for plants to grow beneath lights than not enough.

Jeff selected this type of bulb:

He thought it – ahem – interesting that the bulbs packaged as “grow” lights don’t even list their specifications on the label. Maybe it’s because then the outright comparison to standard fluorescent bulbs would be more obvious.

At the store where he shopped, one two-foot “grow” light bulb was $20 whereas each four-foot regular fluorescent tube was $5.

Our entire cost was just over $40: four bulbs at $5, two fixtures at $10, and a little bit more for the hardware and chains. I know this rack will serve us for many years.

Another option to making a rack is to buy a ready-made shelves or a bookcase, and then outfit it with the fixtures. I had fun scouring second-hand stores for this purpose – but then we remembered about our spare boards.

I’m excited to take my seed efforts to a whole new spectrum this year, and will let you know how it goes. This rack is in a room I can close off from my 1-year-old, at least until he figures out how to turn the doorknob. Wish me luck!



ChristyACB said...

I wondered about that issue with the bulbs.

I did go with the Jump Start table top system (just wasn't into adding yet another task to my long list), but I got them very reasonably at about $70 each.

As to the bulbs though, mine had all the stats on the box and I did look at the Lowe's selection and there was a range difference. Did you note a range difference in your bulbs? I'm wondering if that makes any difference. The light certainly does look different when I compare standards and those side by side. More spectrum or something.

Would love to know how they work for you though. Hope you'll be updating us with pictures!

Unknown said...

I told my husband Michael that I was jealous that you guys had done this. He looked at me and asked, "Why don't we just do the same thing then?" so we are. Great idea Jennifer!

Jennifer said...


I admit that trying anything new can make me nervous; I'm more of a believe-it-when-I-see-it gal, but I read articles from several state extension agencies about regular fluorescent bulbs before doing this, so we're confident.(Crossing my fingers!) I definitely will update with pictures of my seedlings -- planting them is my big goal this weekend.

No, when my husband shopped he really didn't see a range difference, because this info wasn't listed on the grow light packaging.

Tell us more about the Jump Start tables!

Kelly said...

Cool idea.... I could use this in my classroom - I have a "salad" garden growing in window boxes under lights, but it is on a big bulky table.

Question - After cleaning out my garden beds I've found that an enormous colony of ants has moved into one of the beds. Any ideas on a natural way to encourage them to move out? Thanks, Kelly

Tabby said...

Cover your boards with plastic wrap, plastic tablecloth or even better, vinyl tablecloth pieces so any watering splash-over won't ruin your boards. I just buy plastic assemble-yourself shelf sets from Lowe's, you can get some cheaply. They are ventilated, letting light pass through, water drips pass through and air flow, which is better for preventing fungus growth on damp pots.