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Helping Your Garden Grow with DIY Lights

March 21, 2013

This year, I promised myself I wouldn’t try to start seeds without the right equipment. It only led to heartbreak in the past.

The last two years, I tried to convince myself that with a little ingenuity and hard work I could somehow create enough sunlight to raise seeds in our guest room. Except that the room’s southern exposure is blocked by a giant pine tree. My seeds would sprout, but they’d grow lanky and weak. While they looked okay, albeit not thriving, when I transplanted them, only one or two actually survived outside. I discovered that unlike many endeavors in life, cleverness and dedication alone isn’t enough. There’s no fighting Mother Nature, at least if you don’t have the right tools.

However, I’m also really cheap. There was no way I could justify spending $150 or more to buy a seed starting system. On a strict cost-benefit analysis, buying seedlings at the farmers market that have done well in the past would no question be less expensive.

But then inspiration arrived in the form of a demonstration by Master Gardener Kent Phillips at the Washington Gardener Seed Swap. I always assumed the systems were expensive because of their components. But as he informed us, we could easily build one ourselves for less than $75, depending on the size. In fact, you didn’t need any specialty components – most hardware stores have the necessary equipment for sale.

Confident that Chris and I could build this without much difficulty, we made our way to the hardware store. As per the speaker’s instructions, we picked out two t8 four foot fluorescent bulbs. (These bulbs aren’t exactly the same, but very similar.) The bulbs produce cool white light and more than 2600 lumens. You can either have two cool bulbs or a combination of one warm and one cool. For those not familiar with the term, watts measure energy use, while lumens measure light output. Buying based on lumens makes more sense because you want to use less energy for the same amount of light.

We also bought a fixture to install the bulb. (Again, this one is similar but not identical.) We had a bunch of extra wood from my father-in-law’s construction experiments, so we figured it would be easy to build a stand from those leftovers. Altogether, the equipment totaled less than $50.

On his day off, Chris got to work building our new gardening tool/toy. But instead of building a stand, he came up with an even more ingenious idea. We have a wire rack in our basement that holds our lesser-used kitchen supplies. Part of it is a wooden butcher block that you can use as a countertop, with another rack above it. Rather than jerry-rigging a stand, he realized that we could place the plants on the butcher block and hang the lights from the overhead rack.

Unfortunately, he almost had everything together when he ran into a slight problem. He installed the bulbs in the fixture, attached the lights to the rack, and realized that he had no way to plug in the lights. As it turns out, we bought an industrial fluorescent fixture, the type that wires straight into an electrical system. As we had no desire to mess around with electrical wires, it was back to the store.

On his return trip, Chris discovered shop light fixtures the very next aisle over, which plug right into a socket. Despite being more convenient, the shop light fixtures were only half the price of our original fixture!

DIY Grow light setup for starting seeds

The completed product.

To complete the set, I just ordered a heat mat to keep the seedlings at a consistent temperature. Not all the seed starting kits come with them, but I figured I could afford it with all of the money we had saved building it ourselves. Between the lights and heat mat, we spent about $50 in total.

So now that I’ve at least made a small investment of money, we’ll see how my investment of time pans out. Hopefully, I’ll have more to show for my seed starting efforts this year than a lot of frustration and a few dying plants.

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