DIY Plant Shelf with Grow Lights to Give Your Seeds the Right Start Leave a comment

Grow lights don’t have to be an expensive, fancy thing you splurge on as a gardener. You can really up your gardening game by making your own inexpensive DIY grow light shelf set-up. I’ll take you step-by-step into how I made my plant shelf with grow lights.

Kale and cucumber seedlings growing under lights
Grow lights for seed starting is my favourite way to utilize the lights, especially living in a colder climate.

Grow lights are one of the most useful tools for gardeners who grow lots of vegetables or who are starting a garden from scratch. You can jumpstart the gardening season by starting the seedlings indoors and using grow lights to help give them a boost when the sunlight is still returning to us.

If you’re starting seeds this year, your seeds will have been planted in homemade starters or store bought containers and germinated. Those baby plants may not be ready to hit the harsh outdoors yet, but they need enough light to grow.

This DIY plant shelf with grow lights will help you fashion your very own indoor grow op by using an inexpensive Ikea shelving unit and some utility lighting.

This post will cover…

Seed Shelf tutorial with grow lights
Plastic domes on top of seedlings also help seedlings when they’re first starting out.

Store-Bought Mini Greenhouses

In past years I have used a 4-tier wire shelf which allows me to grow eight trays of seedlings into large plants. I can continuously move the shelves to make more room for taller plants. It comes with a greenhouse cover that makes the perfect transition to the outdoors to harden off seedlings.

I use this 4-tier wire shelf as an outdoor greenhouse when potting the seedlings into larger pots. I decided to make something a little neater for the starts as the shelf was in a prominent place in my office.

It’s quite easy to make your own grow light shelf set-up at a fraction of the price.

Plus, I needed more room indoors for my air plants, terrariums, and all my other plant babies. Window space is a hot commodity! I’ve seen many inexpensive shelving units from Ikea get used for a few projects by fabulously stylish gardeners, and I gave it a try myself.

4 Tier Mini Greenhouse Seed starting rack with grow lights
Putting this shelf by the window alongside the grow lights allows the seedlings to get as much light as possible.

Designing a Plant Shelf With Grow Lights

Carrie from Read Between the Limes’s $29.99 IKEA Seed Starting Rack inspired this project. Her shelf has fewer lights and adorable seed and soil supply labels. Make sure you check out Carrie’s blog for the instructions on how she set up her shelf and lots of great ideas on gardening with kids.

The original shelf used for this project, the IKEA GORM, is no longer available. However, many of IKEA’s other shelving units would work. Alternatively, look online on Facebook Marketplace or in groups to see second-hand shelves you can turn into your grow light shelf.

I added to Carrie’s setup by using six lights on the top three shelves, which was the perfect amount of light to prevent the seedlings from becoming too leggy. Each tray will have two lights shining directly on it.

All the lights are on chains and have hooks, so I can adjust the light position as the plants grow.

For the seedlings, I also included a heat mat underneath. There, I rest the new seedlings on the heat mat with a plastic cover to keep the heat in. The lights remain OFF until I see signs of germination, then I turn the lights on.

grow light setup with wooden shelves
This tall grow light shelf gives me plenty of room for seedlings and storage.

How to Avoid Leggy Seedlings Under Grow Lights

Tall, spindly (aka leggy) seedlings do not give your plants a great start.

It’s not the end of the world, but it indicates that the plants are not getting enough light which is stressful for them. Growing tall and skinny can cause the plants to flop over and break or be damaged.

The best remedy for leggyness is to provide enough light and the right kind of light. For most home growers wanting to start a few seedlings, standard fluorescent utility lights work just fine.

If you can find inexpensive lights specifically made for growing plants, they may have a high colour temperature that more closely mimics the sun (and they are pink!). These can be very expensive, and for the price, the results are not that much different than standard fluorescent bulbs, so save your bucks and buy a “daylight” bulb instead.

Grow lights should be placed just above the plants. This is why you want your grow light shelf to have adjustable lights. As the plants grow, you slowly raise the light. When the grow light reaches the top, the plants should be planted or potted outside.

Seeds growing under grow lights
Grow lights have to be very close to the plants for them to work well. Make sure they’re adjustable!

If you have leggy plants, re-pot them in deeper pots with the soil line all the way up to the seed leaves (the first leaves that appeared when they sprouted). All that extra stem can be tucked under the soil for protection, and the leaves will have a fresh start.

Leggy tomato seedlings
These tomato seedlings didn’t get enough light from the grow lights and became leggy.

DIY Plant Shelf With Grow Lights

If you want to mimic my grow light shelf set-up, here’s exactly how to do it. It truly isn’t a difficult project, and for the size of it, is much cheaper than anything else you could buy.

Materials

how to build a grow light using florescent lights and chains
With a little DIY work, it’s not difficult to make your own grow light shelf setup.

Make It!

1. Assemble the shelving unit as per instructions. Space top 3 shelves 15” apart; these will be your growing shelves. Space the remaining 2 shelves as you desire from the bottom; these will be supply shelves.

2. Screw 2 hooks to the underside on both the front and back board, spaced 2” in from the width of the lights.

3. Tie wire or string around the light and affix the end of a length of chain to each side. Simply hang the other end of the wires on the hooks at about 1” above the seedlings. Continue to raise the lights as the seedlings grow.

4. I plug all the lights into a power bar to easily turn them on or off the whole thing with one switch. You can also use an affordable Christmas light timer to turn the light on automatically. Start by giving your seedlings 8 hours of light daily and slowly increasing to 12 hours. This mimics the increase in light the plants get as the seasons change and the days get longer.

grow light shelf without the lights on
The grow light shelf with the lights off.

I place the lights so it’s just barely touching the plastic covers or plants. Raise them as the plants grow.

Ikea GORM Seed Starting Shelf with grow Lights on
The grow light shelf with the lights on.

Other Grow Light Shelf Options

Now don’t think you must have a dedicated area specifically for seed starting indoors. My friend Sam sent me some great photos of the Victory Garden’s office where they have seeds growing all over the place. I particularly love them growing under the desk–what a smart use of space!

I also have a grow light countertop set-up. This is a much smaller operation that grows food indoors year-round, primarily microgreens and lettuce. A countertop garden works great for someone who wants access to fresh, homegrown greens no matter the time of year. 

Growlight garden for countertop indoor gardening
This is a grow light set-up you can purchase, or you can easily mimic it using a singular shelf and light.

Frequently Asked Questions About Grow Light Shelves

How many grow lights per shelf?

I fit one standard tray on each shelf and placed two grow lights above. Having two grow lights ensures there is enough light to cover all the seedlings inside the tray. If you only place one light in the middle, the seedlings on the outer edge will reach for the light and become leggy.

How far from grow lights should plants be?

Different grow lights will have varying intensities. For my fluorescent light set-up, place the grow lights about 2” above the plants. The grow lights must be as close as possible to prevent the plants from becoming leggy. As the plants grow, slowly lift the lights to go with them. If you have a plastic dome (greenhouse) over the seedlings, place the grow light 2” above the plastic.

How many grow lights do I need?

This depends on how many seeds you want to grow. Aim to have two lights for each 11” x 22” tray, which can hold six plastic six-cell packs. I have a total of six lights for three trays, and I find this to be enough to start all my seedlings.  

4 Tier Mini Greenhouse Seed starting rack with grow lights close up

More About Seed Starting

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