Thursday, February 24, 2011

jump starting spring: seed starting station

We've been hyper-focused on getting seeds started this week and making improvements from our slightly sad, leggy seedlings of last year. Our first task this spring was to do some research and decide how we wanted to set up a dedicated seed area. I really have to give Marc the credit on this one. He did many hours of research, went back and forth on what type of bulbs to use several times, and then diligently hunted down all the supplies. He also played a large part in relaying the technical details for this post. He's awesome like that. :)

Last year, we had a modest set up consisting of two folding tables and two shop light fixtures that used Plant & Aquarium bulbs. I think we only did about six trays of seedlings, and it was mostly effective, but not ideal - especially for the amount we're doing this year. In retrospect, we realize now that the legginess of our plants was caused by the fact that the light was positioned a bit too high. We've since found that, ideally, you want the light to be no more than 2"-3" above the seedlings. Each light fixture, under the best conditions, puts out about 6,000 lumens - compared with the midday sun, which measures about 100,000 lumens (!!!) - so really, the more light the better!

We were also total slaves to marketing on the whole "Plant & Aquarium bulb" thing. These types of bulbs tend to be lower in lumen output and heavy in the red spectrum. That's very useful for blooming flowers, but for seedlings, the key seems to be the blue spectrum with high lumen output. Seedlings prefer a cooler light temperature (around 6500k) that promotes fast, stocky growth. Our research also revealed a heated online debate about mixing a warm & cool bulb together to create a wide spectrum vs. just using a full spectrum, high lumen output bulb. After a good deal of consideration, we opted for the latter since it seems to be producing the best results for others.

While we were brainstorming, I showed Marc this nifty set up from Gardener's Supply Company with an equally nifty price tag:

If you can afford it, this looks like it would be a great system to use and seems to have everything you need to get going. However, I'm lucky to have a handy boyfriend who's interested in this as much as I am and who's first reaction was, "$600? Seriously? I can build something like that in a day or two; and for 1/4 the price." Again, awesome like that.

After a picking the features we liked from other set ups and making a few revisions, we decided to build our system using the following:
  • 5 tier wire shelf from Lowe's (it needed to be powder-coated to avoid rust & have shelves at least 18" deep to fit our standard 20" seed trays)
  • (8) T-8 fluorescent light fixtures (2 fixtures per shelf, 2 bulbs per fixture) We almost went with T-12's but, luckily, found the more energy efficient T-8's for the same price
  • (16) Daylight Deluxe 6500k bulbs at 2850 lumen each, so 11,400 lumens per shelf (A variety of manufacturers make these, so you should be able to find them at Home Depot, Lowe's, or similar store.)
  • (2) Emergency Space Blankets (the kind you use for camping or emergency kits) We hung one on each side of the shelf unit for light reflectivity and heat retention. These are very effective & also make me feel like I'm in a sci-fi movie every time I check on the seeds. (bonus.) You could also use aluminum foil, or any other reflective material to increase the light.
  • (4) inexpensive outdoor thermometers (one for each shelf)
  • Power strip with 8 outlets
    Hanging fixtures
Installing lights

Lights installed & space blanket hung

Completed seed station!
Using this set up, we are able to exceed the lumen output of most of the commercially available seed starting systems out there and for way less money. The whole set up supports 16 trays of starts for approximately $150. We're super excited to fill these shelves in the coming weeks & see how well it works for us!


  1. This really is pretty much the coolest seedling set up, EVER!

  2. thanks! it's working out really well for us so far & should be enough space to start everything we have this year. marc is even working on an improvement to make the light fixtures easier to raise & lower :)

  3. This is perfect. You guys are awesome. I have a similar set up but the wire shelving is smaller. I wish I'd splurged for the bigger as I run out of room quickly. I only can fit 3 flats per shelf and the lights hang over.
    I love the reflective idea.
    Smart cookies!

  4. Thanks, Bethany! We have been really happy with the set up and the initial investment is sure to pay off with the amount of starts we've been able to do.