When we moved, I abandoned the cobbled together grow light setup I had been struggling with for years in favour of beginning again with a much improved, bigger and badder system.
In the old place I had to stuff the grow light shelving system into a corner nook of my office. Consequently, it couldn’t be more than 2ft wide. Have you ever tried to buy a shop light that is only 2 feet wide? Good luck. Yes, they are available, but they are built in a boxy shape and are meant to be wired in as under-cabinet lighting. I had to do a bit of precarious electrical wiring in order to attached a plugin cord to my lights. Because they were mounted and stationary, I had to lift my seedlings up to receive the necessary amount of distance between them and the bulbs as they grew. This meant regularly adding and subtracting stacks of books that I had placed underneath flimsy trays that wobbled and spilled liquid whenever they were shifted.
As you can imagine, this method did not always work out well for the books.
And then there was the shape of the shop light boxes themselves. Boxy shapes with sides that come down straight don’t reflect light well. I made due, but the set up was what it was. At the time I was happy to take what I could get.
So when we moved I abandoned that mess of wires and spare parts with the dream of something less ramshackle in mind. And then… work, life, moving, stuff. Finally, it all came to a head during the Holidays when the unheated front porch froze and several plants that should not have been out there but had no where else to go, froze. I needed a lighting system stat.
Here’s what I built.
D.I.Y Lighting System for Overwintering Tropical Plants and Starting Spring Seedlings
I built this set up with the average person in mind. My goal was to make a light system that is affordable, using materials that anyone can find without placing an order for special, hard to find bulbs, or parts. Everything is standard sized and can be purchased at a hardware store or DIY centre.
The trick of course is getting it home. As a non-driver who lives in an urban centre, I am sensitive to the difficulty purchasing garden materials can present. So many items are only available from far away locals and are often too large to fit into a cab. Unfortunately, this system is large. It will not fit into a small apartment and it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to get this home without a vehicle. The shelving until did not fit into the trunk of a small rental, but it did fit into the backseat.
The first thing I did was buy a new shelving unit. My goal was to find one that was wide enough to fit an inexpensive, standard-sized shop light (4 feet). I wanted it to be metal because my last shelving unit was wood, and the heat created by the lighting, in addition to my precarious, amateur wiring job had left me feeling a bit nervous. The unit I bought is a 4 foot wide, metal shelf, often used in restaurants. It comes with casters, which are handy if you need to move the unit around for some reason. It normally costs about $150, but I recently found it on sale for $99.
The shelves are adjustable. As a result, I was able to leave one of the shelves off entirely so I could devote more space to the others and vary their heights depending on usage.
- The bottom shelf is for storage of tools, watering can, and other supplies.
- The top two shelves are higher because I am using them for tall, mature tropical plants.
- The remaining shelf is shorter. I am using it for seed starting. I kept it shorter because the seedlings will only stay there for a short period of time. Most of them will move up to one of the higher selves and eventually outdoors.
The Light Boxes
- I acquired 6 cheap, 4 foot-long shop light boxes that come with adjustable chains so you can lower or raise them easily as the plants grow. No more book towers! They have slightly angled sides that reflect light outward.
I used two boxes per shelf. The shelves are wide and I wanted to be sure all of the plants received an equal amount of light. Fortunately, I did not have to buy all of the lights as my friend Barry gifted me three. The three I did purchase cost $17 each.
- These are the boxes I bought, unfortunately, the price is currently marked up.
- I had to purchase several small S hooks so that I could hang the units from the shelves ($3).
I needed a lot of bulbs, 12 in all. I bought:
- 8 full spectrum “Aquarium and Plant” bulbs for the mature plants that will be living on the top shelves through the winter months. They’re not the greatest bulbs out there, but they’re available everywhere and they don’t cost a bundle. I think mine were about $7 each. Really good bulbs tend to cost around $20 each.
- 4 regular fluorescent bulbs for the seedlings. 2 COOL WHITE and 2 WARM WHITE. I put one of each into each unit so that the differing light is evenly distributed. These are less expensive than the full spectrum bulbs (about $6-8 for 2 bulbs). Seedlings don’t require light in the full spectrum in their early days so you can get away with this cheaper option for seed starting. Note: I bought T8 bulbs. This is important to note when you buy your shop light. The new fixtures I purchased take T8, but the older fixtures that were gifted to me take T12 only.
Turning the Lights On and Off
Grow lights need to be on for a long time (12-16 hours), especially when you are growing seedlings. My old unit was on an analog timer, that had to be readjusted if the power went out.
- This time around I purchased a fancy digital timer that has its own internal battery, so if the power goes out it is business as usual. Mine cost about $20.
- All of the lights are plugged into a surge protector, and that is plugged into the timer so that they go on and off at the same time.
The heating mats (below) are plugged into a separate outlet because they need to stay on indefinitely.
My basement is cold. This is good for some plants as they prefer cool, but not freezing temperatures through the winter months. Other plants prefer it warm. I have compromised by putting the plants that like it cool nearest to the door. The heat-loving plants are set on heating mats on the opposite side where there is less chance of a draft.
I applied the same conditions to the seed starting shelf since I am currently growing lithops seedlings that will be forced into premature dormancy if it gets too warm.
- Heat mats cost abut $20-30 each. I have 5 and some of them were purchased for peanuts at garage sales. They’re expensive, but so worth it if you are growing in a cold basement like I am. Still, they are not absolutely necessary. If you’re just starting out, this is the place to save a few bucks.
- I have this one, but here’s a similar but less expensive mat. I would also recommend a kit like this that includes a dome if you don’t have one already.
Lining the Shelves
- I lined the top two shelves with cardboard pieces cut from the box the shelves came in. I did this to avoid dripping water from the upper shelves and through the shop lights.
- I bought plastic winter boot trays for $2 each from the dollar store, and am using those as drip trays for some plants and a mat to create distance between the metal shelves and the heating mats. Heating mats aren’t supposed to touch metal. Two trays fit each shelf perfectly and the ridges inside keep the pots elevated above any water that leaks into the tray so they are never sitting in excess water. It’s brilliant!
Saving more money: They’re not as widely available, but I did find a sturdy metal shelving unit just like mine that was 4 feet wide but with less shelves. To do seedlings only, you could spare the cost of the other lights, especially the more expensive, full spectrum bulbs, and reduce it down to 2 shop lights. You can grow a reasonable number of seedlings underneath such a set up and still have space to store other gardening items.