Inexpensive Seed Starting System

hvander(5B ON)December 20, 2005

Can anyone suggest a good resource for building a do-it-yourself indoor seed starting system? I plan to start approx. 2000 plants and will need an adequate structure.

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maineman(z5a ME)


I originally considered building some shelves out of PVC plastic pipe, because there are several plans available for doing that and the PVC pipe, unlike wood, is waterproof. But I noticed that some people were having problems with the plastic shelves bending under the weight of the load. So I decided to try some inexpensive Chrome Steel Industrial Shelving from Sams Club. Our local Sams Club had them in stock, so I just bought them locally, but of course you could buy from the Internet stores as well. I think Costco has some very similar if not identical shelves.

I simply hung 4-foot fluorescent shoplights directly from the overhead shelves and that proved to be a very flexible. I used 1-inch S-hooks (also from Home Depot) to hook the chains to the shelves. By picking which link of the chain looped over the S-hooks I could easily vary the height of the fluorescent lights over the seedlings as the seedlings grew taller. I got the two-bulb shoplight fixtures from Home Depot for $8 each and I also got the 4-foot T-8 cool white fluorescent bulbs from Home Depot for $2 each in boxes of ten bulbs ($19.99 per box of ten bulbs). For extra light I used more than one shoplight per shelf. I had the lights on a timer, which I adjusted for about 16 hours of light and 8 hours of dark.

Those shelves were fully adjustable and on handy rollers, so that initial rig worked very well for me. The chrome shelves were waterproof and plenty strong to hold my seedling trays. I have since expanded and improved my fluorescent light growing setup, but that first setup let me grow a lot of seedlings that year for a little over $100. And it was much less expensive than comparable ready-made light stands.


    Bookmark   December 21, 2005 at 1:17PM
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hvander(5B ON)

Thanks MM. That sounds like a good start.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2005 at 8:37PM
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Just did the exact same setup. Only difference was that I covered the sides with plastic covers attached with velcro and put a small computer fan at the bottom. This keeps the heat up inside (because the garage is cold) and keeps the air moving adequately.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2006 at 12:20PM
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annebert(6b/7a MD)

Ooh, ooh. I just got one of these units at Costco. I am so excited. Just have one of my shoplights sitting on a shelf right now (have to figure out where the chains are), with lots of plants tucked underneath. They are really heavy duty - can hold 150lb per shelf (more if you don't use the casters). And compared to the $800 unit someone else posted, what a deal!

    Bookmark   January 12, 2006 at 9:56PM
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angelstiger(z5 NH)

A GW friend sent me this site. If your handy with a saw and screw gun, it is a pretty easy project. Also if you use industrial grade lumber it is fairly inexpensive. I plan to make it twice as deep. That shoud allow me to put five 72-cell flats per shelf. If I hang some lights from the ceiling over it, I figure it will have room for 1440 seedlings. Of course after studying another thread in this forum, I plan to put two 48" twin-tube "overdriven" shoplights per shelf. Thats gonna drive the cost up a few bucks. But I figure I can build the whole thing, including the "overdriven" lights and a timer for around $200-$250. The shelving unit alone should cost less than $100.

Here is a link that might be useful: Build It Yourself Seed Starting Rack

    Bookmark   January 12, 2006 at 10:25PM
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I have the metal rack from costco, actually I have 4 of them all set up with lights. This year I have them set up in my greenhouse. All on timers.Just started planting seeds. I think my heat mat may have fried some of my seedlings that I just planted on Saturday. I can't believe how fast seeds germinate when they have the bottom heat and well the heat from all the warm. But yea the metal racks and floresents are great I had so many flowers last year. I think every seed grew and grew well!

    Bookmark   January 23, 2006 at 5:42PM
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sapman(z5 NY)

After reading MaineMan's previous posts I started searching for the same chrome wire shelves. No Costco around, Sam's Club about 60 miles away, but I'm not a member. I located the same thing on line for $96 with $48 shipping. I tried on line with Sears, Home Depot, Lowes with no luck. I happened to be a member of B.J.'s Wholesale House and went there to check. They had the same one that Sam's Club had, 6 chrome wire shelves,for $69.95. You can convert it to two 3 shelves if you want too. Very easy to assemble with no tools. Roy

    Bookmark   February 1, 2006 at 12:06PM
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watergal(z6/7 Westminster, MD)

I have the wire shelves too. Very easy to put together, and my dad the engineer said they are just about strong enough to park a car on!! I love them - it's so easy to hang and rearrange the lights.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2006 at 10:12AM
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sanj(Rocky Mtn Z5)

I bought one yesterday for around $80 in costco..very nice rack. Now I need to get some light supply, timers and fans. I am growing tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Need some hints on what type of 48" lights to get...need some help for the newbie. Also how many lights per selve, 2 or, 4?

    Bookmark   February 7, 2006 at 6:52PM
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maineman(z5a ME)


I recommend Home Depot's Commercial Electric shoplights, model 732-334. They sell for about $8. They hold two 48-inch bulbs and can accept either T8 or T12 bulbs. I recommend T8s because they are more efficient. Home Depot sells Philips T8 cool whites in boxes of 10 for $19.99. So they cost only $2 per bulb. Don't waste money on more expensive GroLite bulbs.

Since the 732-334 fixtures are just a bit less than 5 inches wide, you can easily hang three of those fixtures per 18-inch deep shelf, for a total of six bulbs per shelf. Of course you could hang just two fixtures or only one fixture if you prefer. I prefer to give my seedlings all the light they can use, so I usually use the maximum number of fixtures per shelf. I also overdrive my fixtures for the same reason.

I usually load the plant trays cross-ways to get four trays per shelf instead of the usual two trays. The trays jut out about 2 inches on each side of the shelf, but that works OK for me.


    Bookmark   February 8, 2006 at 7:07PM
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ljrmiller(z7 NV)

maineman, I just built a very similar set-up. I used light fixtures that already had plugs on them, for $12.00 each, s-hooks ($1.50 for 6), a 5-shelf rack that holds 3 flat trays per shelf from Target that I got on sale for $30, a surge protector strip and an extension cord (because the setup is in a spare bedroom and an outlet wasn't easily reachable), total cost for the cord and strip $10.00, and then I splurged and got the fancy 9 dollar plant light bulbs (4' T-12 40-Watt jobs). Total cost under $150, and I can take the whole thing down if I decide to move it, move to a new house (not in the works, but ya never know...), or tire of compulsive gardening.


    Bookmark   February 25, 2006 at 7:06PM
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wanderindiana(z5 IN)

I'm just putting together my MaineMan setup- I got one of the shelving units from Sam's club, but I only used 5 of the six shelves. I wanted to have a little more space between shelves because I'm going to start the seeds in larger pots. It's probably less power-efficient, since I could make do with just one shelf of seedlings and then spread out as they get bigger.

But I've found that, life being what it is, if I plan on transplanting seedlings I'm not going to find time to do it. Last year I started 288, and gave most of them away. This year I'm going to raise about 30 plants and start about twice that many. AND I'm going to put them in pots they can grow in, so they've got a great root system at transplant time, not just a bunch of leaves growing out of a thimble.

Yesterday I picked up 18 of the Home Depot 732-334. I also picked up three different kinds of bulbs: Sylvania Cool White Octron Ecologic (12-pack at Lowe's, just under $3 per bulb), Phillips Cool White at Home Depot (2-pack, $2 per bulb) and Phillips Daylight Deluxe (2-pack, $3 per bulb).

So now I'm trying to figure out which bulb of the three is best for plants. If I need to make one more trip to return and replace bulbs, I'll do it. But just one more trip!

All put about 2800 Lumens. The Cool White bulbs are 4100K, the Daylight Deluxe is 6500K.

Are there any recent writeups on fluorescent bulbs?

I thought I'd buy the cheapest bulbs I could get, then I figured that I was dropping $18 plus 15 minutes for each overdriven fixture- it might be worth spending an extra buck or two on the bulbs.

I apologize if I'm hijacking the thread. Should I start a separate one?

    Bookmark   February 26, 2006 at 7:40AM
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ljrmiller(z7 NV)

I chose the more expensive ($9/bulb) "plant light" ones because they claim that they emit more of the red and blue wavelengths plants like. I was also seduced by the word "phosphor". I am SUCH a nerd... I justified my cost because the package also claims the bulbs will last for 9 years, so at a dollar a year I figure it's a "bargain". You should see the justifications I use to buy plants and seeds I don't have room for and don't need...


    Bookmark   February 26, 2006 at 12:24PM
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All fluorescent bulb contain a phosphor. The term "phosphor" refers to the phosphorescent properties of the tube's chemical coating, not necessarily that it contains the element phosphorous.

What brand name is the bulb? Is it a GRO-LUX? Sylvania makes a GRO-LUX Standard, and a GRO-LUX Wide Spectrum. Both are good lights and are not mistakes. Yes, you could have bought a cheaper bulb, but don't sweat it.

If it is a GRO-LUX, I can tell you more info about it. I had a conversation with SYLVANIA's Senior Engineer in their Lighting Division, and got a brief history of the GRO-LUX's development. This guy's father, John Waymouth (both are PHD's) wrote the definitive book on electric arc discharge lamps, which includes fluorescent, metal halide and high pressure sodium lamps - all used for plant growth.

As long as it wasn't an incandescent plant lamp, you have a decent plant light. Don't worry. Keep reading posts here and you'll know what to buy next.


    Bookmark   February 26, 2006 at 4:31PM
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ljrmiller(z7 NV)

Zink, I know that all fluorescent bulbs contain phosphors, but I'm that kind of a nerd who gets all thrilled by technical words. I use a phosphorimager in my work sometimes, and it's fun. Therefore "phosphor" on the bulb wrapper meant "fun" to me.

I bought GE plant/aquarium bulbs, which supposedly have relatively more of the wavelengths that plants (or, more specifically chlorophyll) like. I know my little cactus seedlings greened up within hours and that they are growing like crazy.

Even though I know my setup isn't THE most energy-efficient rig, I'm planning to add another light to another shelf this weekend, because now I have too many things that will want the light. I also don't begrudge the money, even if misspent, because gardening is my chief weakness/hobby.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2006 at 5:23PM
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ljrmiller(z7 NV)

I had the most wonderful time combing the GE, Sylvania and Philips/Osram websites looking for data on fluorescent plant lights. I read up on rare earths, the difference between wide-spectrum and "regular" plant lights, looked at the graphs of wavelength distributions, and was also happy to realize that I chose the correct sort of bulb for seed-starting.


    Bookmark   March 2, 2006 at 12:58PM
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While everyone is getting their lights and shelves set up, may I suggest you go to Wal-Mart and pick up a few of the silver mylar 'emergency blanket/wraps' they sell. These are what runners put on after a marathon, etc. Hang them over the rack and you'll keep light and heat inside the box. Couple of bucks each, and unlike the bulbs, these will last forever.


    Bookmark   March 2, 2006 at 4:48PM
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margored(z5 CNY)

thebard (or anyone else), could you please describe how you set up the little computer fan inside your seed-starting shelf unit? i found some small computer fans on american science and surplus (, but i'm not sure what you'd plug it into. i'm a little limited in the techie department, so if it doesn't plug into a normal 2-3 prong wall outlet i'm at a loss. thanks!

    Bookmark   March 7, 2006 at 8:15AM
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nygardener(z6 New York)

Here's a seed-starting rack similar to the one posted by angelstiger. Re Andrew's idea (space blankets), just make sure you vent them or leave an opening so you don't bake the plants.

Here is a link that might be useful: Seed starting rack

    Bookmark   March 8, 2006 at 11:39AM
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ljrmiller(z7 NV)

I got a second light installed on my shelves this weekend. I'd planned to do it sooner, but then I went and injured my wrist and couldn't do it. My wrist is all better (well, better enough to stand up to pounding on shelves with a rubber mallet to move and re-seat them, and better enough to balance the shoplight fixture with one hand while I attached the chains and s-hooks).


    Bookmark   March 13, 2006 at 2:02PM
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Would it be necessary to cover the rack with some sort of insulating
material if I am planning on using a heated seed starting mat? I am
interested in starting my seeds in a rather cool basement and keeping them
there until they are ready for hardening off.

Any help would be appreciated!



    Bookmark   April 4, 2006 at 8:38PM
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maineman(z5a ME)


I probably wouldn't cover the rack with insulating material, at least not for any period of time, because after the plants come up, they need some air circulation for health and to avoid damping off.

I use small electric fans to provide a little artificial breeze. That makes the seedlings sturdier. I mount several overdriven fluorescent fixtures rather close to my plants to give them a lot of light and the fixtures themselves provide some warmth.

Your nighttime temperature is another question. Do you have a thermometer in your basement and what does it read at night?


    Bookmark   April 4, 2006 at 11:28PM
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I don't have a thermometer, but I don't think the basement is lower than 58 or 59 at night.


    Bookmark   April 5, 2006 at 8:20PM
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maineman(z5a ME)

58º should be OK for a nighttime temp. It's a little cool. Just set your timer for no more than an 8-hour "night". And try to keep your fluorescent bulbs no farther than a couple of inches from the upper leaves. If you have a lot of fluorescent lights going, they will tend to take the chill off of your basement.


    Bookmark   April 6, 2006 at 1:16PM
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The one thing I'm still curious about is an electric seed starting mat. Do you think I should shut this off once the seeds have sprouted or keep this on to keep the plants warm?

    Bookmark   April 7, 2006 at 11:44AM
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maineman(z5a ME)


Until you learn otherwise, leave the heat mat(s) in place and on until such time as you transplant the seedlings to larger containers. You are growing in a rather cool basement, and the heating mats might be helpful for an extended time, depending on the type of seedlings you are growing.

If I were in your place, I would get an inexpensive thermometer and place it near your seedlings to get some idea about their thermal environment, both day and night. If either temperature is significantly below the preferences of the particular seedlings you are growing, then sustained use of the heating mat could be helpful.

Look up the temperature preferences of the seedlings you are starting. Some like it warm while others prefer cooler temperatures and might find your basement to their liking without any extra warmth.


    Bookmark   April 7, 2006 at 12:17PM
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nygardener(z6 New York)

Another thing you could try, which someone mentioned on another topic, is to have the plants' period of darkness during the day, so that they'll have the warming benefit of the lights at night. Or you could stagger the "nights" for the seeds, so that one shelf is dark from 10 pm to 6 am and the other is dark from 10 am to 6 pm.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2006 at 6:18PM
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squeeziemonkey(z5 Chicago)

What about taking that Emergency Blanket and just velcroÂing it to the backside of the wire-shelving unit? I suppose doing the sides as well would be good too but I want to know what you think.

Then you will have the front open but have the great reflective properties of the blankets shining light back on the plants.

If you then did some kind of screening on the front it would keep out any bugsÂ

I am a TOTAL nube at this and want to start something in my office and this forum has the best ideas IÂve found yet!

    Bookmark   May 11, 2006 at 11:20PM
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gardentech(Z8a GA)

I want to start my seeds in my garage, but it is cold at night right now, (about 40 deg). Anyone have suggestions on how to keep the seeds warm? I was thinking of a heat mat, but not sure.

    Bookmark   January 5, 2008 at 7:38PM
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You could run the lights at night and turn them off during the day. The heat from the lights will add extra warmth.



    Bookmark   January 6, 2008 at 9:02AM
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My 2 cents regarding heat mats is use an electric blanket instead of an expensive heat mat. I use an electric blanket and love it. I start around 1500 pepper seeds each season and the electric blanket is the best (cheap) investment I have made as far as soil heat.

Again, just my 2 cents!

    Bookmark   January 20, 2008 at 12:40AM
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maineman(z5a ME)


"Anyone have suggestions on how to keep the seeds warm? I was thinking of a heat mat, but not sure."

I use heating mats and I also got a thermostat to turn off the heat mats in case it gets too warm. As Rokal said, your fluorescent lights can produce quite a bit of heat themselves, particularly if you use humidity domes to keep the seed trays moist. The heat from the fluorescent lights can "build up" under the humidity domes. I discovered that the temperature got as high as 95° F under tall humidity domes that were under overdriven fluorescents, so I used some of my normally driven fluorescent fixtures instead, and the temperature dropped to about 80°. As soon as your seedlings get their "true leaves" you probably should remove the humidity domes, but then you will need to keep a much closer watch to make sure they don't run short of water.

I personally wouldn't recommend using an electric blanket, because it isn't designed for operating in a seed starting environment. If something went wrong, like an electrical short or a fire, the electric blanket could be a false economy.


    Bookmark   January 22, 2008 at 3:15PM
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Thank you all for sharing this information here! I am looking into getting a seedling shelf set up for my husbandÂs birthday. One question, though: what about the danger of electrocution? How do you safely water your plants without also watering the various lights and heating pads beneath them? (I assume the plants are on trays, and are either taken off the shelves for watering, or are just watered veeery carefully?) Thanks!

    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 6:08PM
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maineman(z5a ME)


"...what about the danger of electrocution?"

It's a legitimate concern. I am careful to water my plants so that overflow doesn't drip down onto the shoplights below. And I do use trays to catch any overflow or seepage. And I do seal any holes in the top of my shoplights with white electrical tape (white just for appearance) to keep any water coming from above out of them.

But if you feel uneasy about this, you might want to invest in a commercial plant stand. They do, however, cost considerably more than the units we have discussed here.

16 Tray, 4 Tier Light Stand, w/ Timer

Ultimate 16 Tray Light Stand Combo


    Bookmark   January 31, 2008 at 12:00AM
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Thank you for the information maineman!

Oy, every one of those commercial plant stands I've looked at has been more expensive than the last.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2008 at 9:30AM
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mrja(Minneapolis, MN)

Thanks for the insight provided by this thread. As a grower wanting to start some special seedlings for the salsa crop this year, I can't express how incredible you all are for coming up with the best logical solutions to otherwise expensive problems.

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   February 16, 2008 at 1:52PM
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Hi, I currently have an old flourecetlight on a wire shelf too. Did u getyour fixtures for just 8 dollars...everywere i see they are at least 30 buck for a double tube.

Where did u get the fixtures?


    Bookmark   February 23, 2008 at 10:54AM
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maineman(z5a ME)


I get my Commercial Electric Shoplights (model 732-334) from Home Depot. So far, they have cost about $8 each.


    Bookmark   February 24, 2008 at 7:04PM
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To save costs I bought two heating pads to use under my seedling tray...I couldnÂt find the ones that continually run, these have an automatic two hour shut off.
I was thinking of cutting out the switch and splice the wires together. Is there a safer way to disable the automatic shut off?
I also built the seed starting rack as posted by nygardener. $35.00 worth of material.. 6 2x4's ripped in half then cut to length, left over stain from a previous project and half a day constructing it and it looks awesome...I can't wait to use it.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2008 at 12:21AM
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Hi, and thanks. I found the light and am thrilled... now ill have even more space for seedlings.

One quick question (Im not sure if this is a correct post...) I dont have enough room under my lights for all the plants i attended on growing. What plants are tolerant of lower light (from a window)? thanx

    Bookmark   February 25, 2008 at 6:09PM
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Thanks so much for this cheap setup. I want to do it. I have a question: If I grow seedlings under these lights, do they even need to be next to a window, or will there be enough light just from the artificial lights alone?

    Bookmark   February 28, 2008 at 7:22PM
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Several years ago I made a set up from stuff I had lying around and scrounged up. You can get quite inventive with old wood pallets. Most grocery stores in my area have stacks of these out back. Ask and you can usually get a couple. Half pallets work fantastic as these fit flats perfectly.

As for heating the set up. I put my shelves in the corner of the basement and hung some old blankets up to make a small room. I then just put a small ceramic heater in there. It had a thermostat built right into it. With just a bit of experimentation I was able to keep the entire area at a comfy 80 degrees all sprouting season. I even got the shop lites second hand from Craigs list. Built the whole thing for under $50. Started several hundred plants that way.

I've moved since then but plan on starting this back up again next spring and selling some seedlings at the local farmers market. Our new house has plenty more space and I've got a cool new idea on free (or nearly) organic pots to try too.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2010 at 10:38PM
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Sorry to sound so dumb, but WHAT does "overdriven" mean?

    Bookmark   February 18, 2011 at 2:03AM
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taz6122(N.W. AR.6b)

Pushing more watts through the bulbs. Type overdriven in the search box toward the bottom of the growing under lights forum page for more info. That search box will have a search in this forum option.
Well I hate being an enabler but here's the search results

Here is a link that might be useful: overdriven search

    Bookmark   February 18, 2011 at 10:01AM
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waker(waker RI)

Hi - Two questions
1. There are several references to the Home Depot Model732-334 fluorescent light. Any idea of the updated model number? I can't find any 732-334.

2. Someone mentioned a seed starter rack posted by "nygardener". Any idea where I can find that posting? Or any other good home made wooden racks?

Any help would be appreciated. The snow is melting up here in Maine and thoughts turn to gardens.


    Bookmark   February 20, 2011 at 8:10PM
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I'm thinking of getting some lights for my seedling that are in my basement. They do get some natural light from a window but not much.

I like this set up

The question I have is will there be a big difference between using the homedepot lights (gro=lux) or not, compared to a t5 sunblaster with 4 bulbs in it.

The cost for that light/fixture alone is approx 150 cdn.

I'm trying to grow annuals and will move them to the greenhouse in april.

Or.. will I be fine with the homedepot setup?


    Bookmark   February 27, 2011 at 8:10PM
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There is no need to spend $150.00 for a light fixture to grow your plants.

Since you're in Canada, if you want, you could head over to Rona, and get yourself some shoplights for about $27.00 each. The ones I bought already have T8 cool whites in them.

Also, you'll probably want a timer so you don't have to turn them off every night. =:)

Because I like to experiment, I also bought grow light tubes which I'm going to use. Then I can see for myself if there's any difference between T8 cool whites, and what they sell as grow lights for a lot more money.

Good luck with your plants =:)

    Bookmark   March 5, 2011 at 3:33PM
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GoGo Juice

Oops. I see from another post you already bought lights.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2011 at 3:35PM
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madrone(VancIsl BC)

If you have a florescent tube fixture (old fashion shop lights that hold two tubes) just make sure you have a cool light tube and a warm light tube. These will emit light rays from both ends of the color spectrum (like the sun).

    Bookmark   March 6, 2011 at 1:51AM
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taz6122(N.W. AR.6b)

No need to mix bulbs. They're all full spectrum and you wont see any change in growth over the slight difference. Get any cheap bulbs that are 4100-6500k in color.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2011 at 9:53AM
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As far as shop lights go, do you prefer the ones with reflectors or not? Because the ones with reflectors/chains with which to hang them are NOT $8 and I've been all over my area going to every sort of hardware store I can think of to compare prices. It is either inflation at work or stores no longer carry whatever shop lights everyone has talked about in the past lol

The only "shop lights" for uber-cheap that I've seen are the ones that need to be drilled into the wall, i.e. "under cabinet" lighting.

But, since I shall have nothing to do today I'm going to try to purchase a cheap set of wire shelving and one shop light and bulbs. I was thinking of waiting two weeks (basically, until my next check) but some of my plants are growing very well and will need to be transplanted and have more space than what I currently have set up.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2011 at 9:55AM
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taz6122(N.W. AR.6b)

My $10 fixtures have reflectors. They're small but they do work. Chain is cheap enough to buy separately. You may want longer chains than what they supply anyway.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2011 at 10:09AM
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susan2010(6 Massachusetts)

For managing all the plugs (lights, heat mats, fan), I mounted this vertically. I've found it very useful for a tall setup.

Here is a link that might be useful: Power Strip

    Bookmark   April 19, 2011 at 11:33AM
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taz6122(N.W. AR.6b)

Looks like another way to overload a socket to me. I use 2 smaller ones ($20) in 2 separate sockets.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2011 at 4:20PM
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