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Monday, March 8, 2010

Easy Seed Starting Rack

Originally Posted by Jennifer March 2009

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!



Amy @ yardtofork.wordpress.com said...

Love it! Can't wait to hear how it works and how your seeds do. We just planted some potatoes in garbage cans... so we'll see how those work. :)

Unknown said...

I happened to pick up almost everything to do this project at Home Depot this weekend. We had the wood, but I needed lights and chain. I was going to get the "full-spectrum" plant lights, but I notice that you used the "natural" lights. Do you think these are better for plants? I had looked at some grow lights on-line and they were using full-spectrum lights, so that is why I was thinking these would be best. What do you think?

Unknown said...

Amy at yardtofork:

Will you let us know if you could get the garbage can potatoes to work? I tried it 2 years ago and it was a flop!

Amy at homestead revival, I'm not sure why Jennifer chose the "natural" lights, if grow lights use full-spectrum, I'm sure they will work. Good luck!

Jennifer said...

Amy @ Homestead Revival, thanks for your interest! My lights were indeed full-spectrum. The "natural" is a subset category, kind of like the way basic 60 watt light bulbs can also come in "soft light." Frankly, we just used the kind of bulbs that we found for the best price.

One change I would do from our previous rack is to have the shelves closer together. We spaced them at 27 inches apart, which proved wildly optimistic for the height of our seedlings last year. But who knows! Maybe I'll grow behemoth tomato starts this time around.

Another observation: My flats were wider than the light fixtures. This meant that when the fixtures were only four inches above the seedlings, the light wasn't distributed evenly (more concentrated in the middle). I had my seedlings in individual pots inside the flats, which allowed me to easily rotate them each day to equalize light exposure. Since I love checking my seeds every day, this chore was actually enjoyable. Once the plants grow and you lift the lights, light distribution becomes more even.

I saw Marisa's plant rack last year and she did something brilliant! She used the boxes from her light fixtures to hold her seed pots. Same width, same concentration of light.

By the way, since making our rack last year, we have found fluorescent tubes in 3-foot lengths. That opens up all sorts of possibilities to retrofit shelving systems from discount stores, as 3 feet seems to be a standard width.

Good luck with your project! I just reassembled my rack and am excited to start seeds again this year.

Unknown said...

If this posts twice - forgive me. It says an error came up...

Jennifer, thanks for all the extra tips and for answering my question. I appreciate all the help! And the idea for using the light boxes is great. I hadn't found any trays yet, so I'm going to give this a try.

I did purchase some light fixtures with an "awning" over them that focused the light somewhat. I noticed that the commercial grow lights had these, so I spent some extra $ to get these. I should still come in under $100 - $125 because I have all the wood. We'll see if the awnings help any. I can't wait to get started!

Jennifer said...

Amy @ Homestead Revival,

The "awnings" sound like a great idea. This year, keeping standard flats as my trays, I may double up the fixtures -- two side by side, to really equalize the light.

I was very pleased with my seed rack last year, and hope you will be too.

katiegirl said...

Great idea! I've got mine in front of a window now, but it's just not enough light!

-Sydney- said...

From my reading on gardening forums and other sources, the "full spectrum" grow lights have both the hot and cool color temperatures. Low color temperatures (or lights that appear more blue) are better for vegetative growth, while hot color temperatures are better for flowering. For starting seedlings, standard cool fluorescents are totally fine and grow lights don't provide any added value. If you are trying to produce crops indoors, however, you'd need full spectrum lights.


I installed a concentrated bank of under-counter lights in my kitchen to use as my seed starting area. It's not as large scale as your racks but perfect for my tomatoes and peppers and will probably be a home for herbs in the winter.