A Cheap And Easy Grow Light Setup For Garden Seedlings

How to Make Cheap Grow Lights for Growing Plants and Seedlings Indoors

Inexpensive Grow Light Setup

The following is excerpted from the upcoming book, Small Space Seed Starting by Mary Ellen Ward. Subscribe to this blog or follow Mary on Amazon for an announcement when it is published (will be available on Amazon).

Whether you are growing vegetables, flowers, or even houseplants, plant grow lights do NOT have to cost a lot. Following is the cheapest grow light setup for seedlings–and what’s even better, all of the supplies can be had with a single trip to your neighborhood hardware store.

Of course, shopping online is an option, too, but in my personal experience the best prices on these grow light supplies has been through Lowe’s (which is the closest supplier to me, but Home Depot and Walmart are close seconds). That said, depending on the size of your setup, Amazon and other online retailers have some good prices, too.


How to Make Cheap Grow Lights:
You will need:
>> Plug-in workshop lights — standard 2-tube fluorescent units (available at any Lowe’s, Home Depot, Wal Mart, Hardware store, or online)
>> 1 Cool spectrum bulb (fluorescent tube)
>> 1 Warm spectrum bulb (tube)
>> Small S hooks (2 per light unit — chains are usually included with the light unit)
>> Optional: power strip and/or timer


What Is The Cheapest Grow light Setup for Seedlings?

Specialized grow light units are convenient and reliable, but they also tend to be quite expensive and more difficult to locate locally (which also means that if you need to replace a bulb or a unit on short notice, acquiring one quickly could be a problem).

Alternatively, and less expensively, you can create your own grow light setup with simple, inexpensive supplies that you can buy at nearly any local hardware or department store.

Dual-bulb plug-in fluorescent workshop lights are easy to install, inexpensive, and accessible. (A similar setup with LED lights is workable, too, as long as the bulbs have the full spectrum of light or you can locate bulbs to achieve a full spectrum ranging from cool to warm light.)

Forty-eight-inch shop light units are widely available and fit a four-foot-long shelving unit well. You can plug them into any household three-prong outlet or power strip. Power strips make it easy to turn all the light units on and off together.

The Right Type of Bulbs to Buy for Cheap and Easy Grow Lights

warm and cool spectrum lightbulbs

The way to achieve full-spectrum plant lighting with inexpensive shop bulbs is to use one “cool” spectrum bulb and one “warm” spectrum bulb.

These are not specialty bulbs — you will find them in the regular lighting aisle with all the other bulbs. They are usually sold two to a pack, so if you are setting up two grow lights, just buy one pack of each. 

Place one of each type of bulb in each shop light fixture.

Typical fluorescent bulbs of this type usually cost around $5 per bulb as of the time of publication (as opposed to around $25+ for grow lightbulbs of the same size). Each type of bulb (warm and cool) delivers light at different points of the spectrum, but together they achieve the full spectrum your plants will require.

Note that, although some fairly specific units and supplies are detailed here, any size or version of this setup that fits your needs and your space will give you the light you need — again, as long as you take care to use light bulbs that will provide a full spectrum of light for your plants; it’s all about the bulbs that give you the full spectrum of light.

How To Make A Space-Saving Grow Light Shelf

Though you can use a tabletop setup, the idea with small-space seed starting is to minimize and maximize your space at the same time. Do this by using a simple shelving unit to create tiers of lighted space so that you can keep many plants in the same footprint of floor space.

Depending on how much space you need for plant flats, you could even put a small two- or three-level shelf on the top of a table or workspace—as long as you can sacrifice that space for the next two to three months.

As for the shelf itself, there are many options online or at your local hardware, farm, or garden store. Your shelf certainly does not need to be one specifically designed for use as a plant shelf. Metal shelves that are used for kitchen, bath, or dry storage are ideal and come in sizes that work well with standard shop lights.

household storage shelf used for growing seedlings

Inexpensive home “greenhouse” units work, too, (these often have a plastic covering that you will want to remove to allow good air circulation and to keep the plastic away from the lights’ heat). Rubbermaid™-type or heavy-duty plastic storage shelves are other good options. Even some cheap wooden-slatted bookcases can work.

To create your lighted growing shelf, use S hooks on the bottom of one shelf to hang above the shelf below.

Shop light, S hooks, chains for hanging on plant shelf.

Using the chains that come with your light units, hang them from the S hooks.

Do not pinch the hooks closed–you want them open so that you can easily adjust your grow lights and move them up as your seedling grow.

How Far Away Should You Space Grow Lights From Seedlings?

Grow lights 2 inches above seedlings

Your lights should always be kept about two inches above your growing plants–close enough to provide strong light without causing the seedlings to become leggy and stretched, resulting in weak stems.

Also note that LED lights tend to run hotter than fluorescent bulbs and therefore may need to be distanced farther than fluorescent tubes. Some people find it difficult to find a balance between being far enough away not to burn the seedlings, but close enough to prevent leggy stem growth.



Grow Light Management Tips
>> If your plants develop tall, thin, weak stems, move your light closer, about an inch above the tops.
>> Be sure plants are not touching the lights. Fluorescent lights run fairly cool, but if they are too close lights could cause burning and over-drying of your seedlings.
>> LED lights run hotter than fluorescent tubes and may need to be spaced farther from plant tops (but some people say it is difficult to keep the plants close enough for strong stem growth without burning plant tops).
>> Continue to move lights up by adjusting the units on the chains, always keeping them within one to three inches of the plants.
>> Adding a fan to your setup and/or brushing your hand lightly over the tops of your seedlings daily helps to mimic wind and helps seedlings develop stronger stems.


How Much Time Do Indoor Garden Plants Need Under Grow Lights?

The recommended amount of time that you should provide light to your indoor seedlings, flowers, and vegetables is set at between 12 and 16 hours per day. This mimics early spring outdoor light and also adds some time (at the higher 16-hour range) to accommodate for lighting conditions that are less powerful than the sun’s natural light. If you provide consistent light in this time range you will give your plants a strong enough start to get them to transplant stage.

If You’ve Got Good Light, Do You Need A Grow Light Setup?

If you have a south-facing bay window or something similar, there is a slim chance you’ll have enough natural light to grow your seedlings, but the fact of the matter is that most of us do not.

Even with a good light source from a glass door or window, days are simply not long enough to provide enough hours of direct sunlight for your seedlings to grow properly, especially in the earlier weeks of growing before the days naturally lengthen. 

Also, most modern windows are designed to block out the sun’s ultraviolet rays as a level of skin protection and protection for household goods and fabrics. The amount of UV light being blocked by your windows and doors may vary depending on factors like type, age, and brand of the window, but the bottom line is, there’s a good chance your plants won’t be able to get all the full-spectrum growing light they need through windows in your home. If you’ve ever tried starting seeds indoors before, and they came out looking pale with long, weak stems that couldn’t support the plant, this is why.

All of this taken together is why we provide supplemental light for strong plant starts.

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