This story was originally published in March 2020.
Last year, I started my garden from seed for the first time. All in all, I was pretty successful — by the end of the growing season, I had a lovely garden brimming with cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, basil and more — but, admittedly, my first foray into the seedling growing process had its own series of mishaps.
Aside from overwatering and crowding my seedlings, my biggest mistake was that I did not have enough light. In my old apartment, I had a beautiful set of south-facing windows, but with the low light and variability of cloud cover during Maine’s early spring, my seedlings still struggled. Early on, so many of my seedlings exhibited legginess — a thinness in the stem and top heaviness that occurs when young plants are stretching desperately for light — that I thought I’d have to cut my losses and start over with a new batch of plants.
Luckily, I was able to salvage my leggy seedlings, but I do not want to go through that stress again. This year, I decided instead to build my own seedling rack, equipped with full-spectrum grow lights, to make sure my seedlings have the conditions that they needed to thrive.
The only problem — which, I might add, is a fairly constant problem for this budget gardener — was cost. The best price for a quality, three-tier seedling grow rack that I could find online was about $600 — and that’s not including taxes, shipping and handling.
I figured I could probably make a DIY seedling rack for less. Armed with no tools but my confidence, I set out to try and do so.
Learning to try
First, I scouted out a location for my DIY seedling rack in my guest room. The room has a south facing window, but it is small — in other words, not nearly large enough to support the number of seedlings I want to grow, especially given that I (perhaps overenthusiastically) ordered about 40 pouches of seeds.
Still, the guest room has plenty of space, open outlets and no permanent tenants. My sister, friends and boyfriend’s fraternity brothers will have to get used to bunking with my seedlings if they visit for the next few months. Personally, I think the privilege is theirs.
Next, I browsed through instructions on making seedling racks online. Some people made their own table-like setups from wood, but I didn’t have the woodworking skills — or patience — for that. Besides, given the space limitations of my apartment, I needed my seedling rack to go more up than out. Instead, I found an inexpensive five-tier wire rack at Ocean State Job Lot that looked like it would do the trick.
After that, I had to pick my grow lights — which, admittedly, was the most intimidating part. Grow lights are inexpensive, and there are seemingly infinite options at the hardware store. I knew that seedlings would do best with full spectrum lights. Some seedling growers have told me that you could use regular shop lights, but my plants are my babies so I wanted them to have the fullest spectrum I could afford. Beyond that, though, I was lost.
I emailed Kate Garland, horticultural specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and asked her which lights I should get. She said, ideally, you should aim for 40 watt bulbs for seedlings. After considering my options and my budget, the best I could afford was 32 watts — but, hey, I did aim.
I picked up a few more materials to complete the apparatus — namely, some s-hooks to hang the lights on the wire rack and an outlet timer so my seedlings would get their 16 hours a day of light despite my tendency toward forgetfulness.
Here is a rough itemized list of my spending (with some accounting for things I already had):
— Wire rack, $45
— Grow lights, $60 each x four = $240
— Outlet timer, $5
— S-hooks, $7 for nine
— Total, $297
That’s not cheap, but it’s about half the price of the store bought rack (again, without shipping and handling). Maybe mine DIY seedling rack wouldn’t have as many wingdings as the store bought model, but it would have an extra shelf, so that’s another thing to take into account.
Now, came the real test: assembling my DIY seedling rack.
A trying experience
First, I had to assemble the rack itself. I had bought a smaller version of a similar wire rack before for holding pots and pans in my kitchen, but it didn’t have as many shelves. My guest room has a bit of a slant to the ceiling, so getting the shelves all together was somewhat challenging.
Also, my guest room was incredibly dusty. After I sneezed for the third or fourth time, I suddenly felt guilty about all the guests that had stayed there previously among the dust bunnies. Now that my seedlings were taking up residence in the spare room, I’d have to be more diligent about dusting.
Once the rack was finally built, I gingerly unboxed my grow lights. The wires to hang the lights were included in the box, but the s-hooks did come in handy to attach the wires to the rack. I made a mental note of the fact that I could adjust the height of my lights depending on where on the rack I hung the hooks. This will come in handy as my seedlings start to grow.
I hung the grow lights and turned them on to make sure I hadn’t accidentally purchased a dud. I soon realized that I could connect them to one another, Human Centipede-style, instead of using a power strip to plug them all in separately. I quickly made the change and tested them again — success!
Finally, I tested my timer. I had never used one before (I’m not a Christmas lights kind of gal), so I was skeptical, but I was able to set it, forget it and come back half an hour later to unlit lights. I am a timer convert.
My DIY seedling rack is now ready for the upcoming growing season. I didn’t think it was possible, but now I am even more excited for the growing season than I was before.
My tried and true takeaways
With the right materials, making a DIY seedling rack is not difficult. Though the homemade rack is much cheaper than buying one, the project is still going to be somewhat expensive. Still, having the apparatus will prepare you for a more fruitful growing season, with more control over the growing conditions for your precious seedlings.
Going forward, one thing I will have to figure out is how to prevent water from dripping down from my seedlings onto the grow lights hanging below. The wires have been twist-tied out of the way, but I want to avoid soaking the lights themselves because they were such an investment. I did not consider that until it was all set up, but I already have some ideas. I could line the bottom of the wire shelves with old towels, for example, or buy larger grow trays. I will cross that bridge when I get to it.
Of course, I won’t really know how effective my growing rack is until next month when I finally put trays filled with soil and seeds on the shelves and start growing. With my new seedling rack, though, I bet this year will be even more successful than the last.