Setting up a seed starting system - please help

canokieJanuary 3, 2014

I'm planning to buy a 4 foot wide wire shelving unit and some shop lights to make a seed starting system like I have read about here and elsewhere. I'm not sure which shop lights to get though. I know they have to be 4 feet long and hanging by chains so they can be adjusted as the plants grow. Is T12 better than T8 or does it matter? Looks like most but not all have two bulbs per light. How many lights do I need per shelf? (The shelves are 18" deep and 4 feet wide). Here's the shelving unit:¤tURL=%3FNtt%3Dshelving%2Bunit&facetInfo=

Here are some shop lights I was looking at:

$11.98 for two bulbs (T12):¤tURL=%3FNs%3Dp_product_price%7C0%26Ntt%3Dshop%2Blights%26page%3D1&facetInfo=Fluorescent%20shop%20light

$14.98 for a 2-bulb light (T8):¤tURL=%3FNs%3Dp_product_price%7C0%26Ntt%3Dshop%2Blights%26page%3D1&facetInfo=Fluorescent%20shop%20light

Anything else I should consider?

Also, are the energy efficient ones worth paying twice as much? This one has 4 bulbs instead of 2 (T8):¤tURL=%3FNs%3Dp_product_price%7C0%26Ntt%3Dshop%2Blights%26page%3D1&facetInfo=Fluorescent%20shop%20light

Thank you in advance for any advice you can offer.

Here is a link that might be useful: Shelving Unit

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I use both, the t12 are older style and use a little more electricity. The t12 is a little harder for me to find and I have been changing to t8. I have heard the t5 is a nice light, but have never used one.


    Bookmark   January 3, 2014 at 10:39PM
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Below is a copy/paste from a response I shared a few years back. The "T" designation refers to the diameter of the bulb, expressed in eighths of an inch, so it isn't about whether one is "better" than the other. T12 refers to 12/8" or 1 1/2 " diameter bulb. These days T8s are more common.

Here's the cheapest seed starting setup I've been able to create:
WalMart sells a 48" T8 shop light for less than $10. It includes chain and hooks for the fixture, but not hooks to go into your ceiling. If you want the pull chain on/off, you'll pay more. I didn't need it.

Home Depot sell Phillips brand T8 Alto light light bulbs. Choose the 6500K color temperature because it most closely duplicates the color spectrum of daylight. I think a 10 pack cost me $25, but you can also buy individual bulbs for a comparable per unit price. Please note that every HD I've every looked in sells the 6500K bulbs, but not one of them had a designated shelf space for them. That makes thems tricky to find, but be persistent.

You may want to consider a timer. Letting the seedlings rest in the dark is just as important as getting enough light. I have found this to be especially important with the strong bulbs I listed above. Relatively speaking I am of advanced age for a woman with such young children. I have found this causes a condition very closely related to the proverbial CRS, so I need a timer. You may not.

A small fan is an optional item you may or may not need. We'll be talking about the importance of air circulation and not overwatering soon enough. It's an annual topic.

    Bookmark   January 4, 2014 at 9:27AM
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I use 3 light fixtures per shelf set at 6.5 to 7" centers. If you use the 48" rack you may not be able to use more than 2 fixtures. I think I made my rack 52" long and 21" deep. I have a very REDNECK set up made of ripped treated fence pickets. It will hold 4 flats per shelf with a little space on each end. I cut a piece of wafer board that fits over the bath tub. My rack sits on the wafer board and I have space for 8 flats under the lights ( two shelves), with 4 more flats on top of the rack. I only use the rack about 3 month and then lift it out and store it till next year. My set up is not pretty but works fine. We never use the bath tub because it is harder to get in and out of.

My light fixtures are the cheapest Walmart sells.

    Bookmark   January 4, 2014 at 10:27AM
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Hi Canokie - in the interest of helping a fellow gardener, I am going to be publicly posting some photos of my messy garage on the internet. It pains me to do this (I swear, we've cleaned out the garage since then!) but to help another, I will show the world my secret shame. :)

I think I have almost exactly the same setup you are describing, however I cannot get your links to the lights to work, just the shelf. I think my shelf is 40" long, because my lights hang off either side, which is irritating so I would definitely recommend getting the shelf sized to the lights you are getting. I bought my lights at Lowe's, too, four of the cheapest garage utility shop fixtures 48" and daylight temperature bulbs in a 10 pack - two bulbs go in each fixture so I've had some extras. I think I've had to change out one bulb, so it helped to have a spare on hand.

In addition to the shelf and the four lights (you could get five, and hang one from the ceiling, but for starting up I decided to go with just four and then when I had everything built and saw how tall the top shelf was - I am only 5'4" on a tall day - I found it wasn't practical to use the top shelf for anything but storing all my extra trays and seed pots), I bought one small package of S hooks from the hardware aisle - the shop lights come with one or two but I used a few extras for some reason - probably to hang the lights from the wire shelves, I can't remember. Also, the S hooks are easy to lose and it's nice to get the small package of 10 or so extras and have them on hand for when you drop one and cannot find it in the mess of your garage, for example.

The other thing I found I "needed" was a power strip (to plug in all four shop lights) and I bought one with a built in timer, to give the seedlings a "night" like Seedmama mentioned. I got this at Lowe's too, and it has a timer that operates 4 of the 8 plugs, I think, and that was exactly how many shop lights I had so it worked out. There are probably other options, just look on the aisle with the power cords/electrical.

So, my basic setup was 1 shelf, 4 lights plus at least 8 daylight temp bulbs, 1 power strip with timer, and 1 small pack of extra S hooks. This got me off and running. Things I added later for my convenience are:

twist ties - I used extras from our bread sacks - to corral the shop light cords and run them down the legs of the shelf and out of my way.

thermometer - I hung a cheap plain thermometer from one shelf with a twist tie so I could check the temp occasionally in my garage. I have a nicer min/max thermometer with a remote display but when our fridge went on the fritz I started using it to make sure the fridge was staying cold and not that the garage was staying warm enough, and never put it back. I have found after my first season I just trust that the garage is staying warm enough - when we pull the cars in and out I try to get the door closed asap, but a big blast of cold air comes in each time. However, our furnace and hot water closet is also in the garage so I think it helps warm it back up.

small fan - when my seedlings got bigger, I started acclimating them with a small fan we had laying around. I set the fan in one spot, and move the seed trays off and on that shelf periodically to give them all a turn in the wind tunnel.

heat mat and digital thermostat - I was worried my garage was too cold to start pepper seeds, so I ordered a heat mat. I didn't get a traditional gardening heat mat as I thought it was kind of expensive, but bought a reptile terrarium heating mat instead and added a regular gardening digital thermostat to it to MacGuyver a cheaper solution. Very happy with this, although it isn't strictly necessary to start seeds with this. I got the mat on ebay since it could be custom sized to the length of my shelf and the thermostat on amazon. Like this:;var=&hash=item35c9e4abc0

meat thermometer: I got a cheap digital meat thermometer at Walmart and designated it my soil thermometer, and I stick it in my seed pots (and outside in the dirt) so I can tell when the soil temps are warm enough to germinate or plant outside.

Lastly, I've used this set up for three years at two houses and have found through trial and error that my seeds grow best if I have two shop lights squeezed onto one shelf, rather than one light per shelf as I had originally when I bought all my stuff. This reduces the number of trays I can have, or I need to get more lights. In the beginning, I used one light per shelf, but had to wrap foil around each shelf to create more light reflectivity to give higher light to the seedlings, which was a pain when it came to watering, checking progress, etc. So now, I usually just start fewer seeds (I have less time anyway, and my first year I gave away dozens and dozens of seedlings - I may have gone overboard) and keep it to mostly two shelves. Since I am usually starting the trays in waves (maybe one tray an evening every week, depends on when I can get around to it) I had started last year with my lights at one per shelf (which the pics show). I've now moved them to two per shelf but haven't taken any new pics.

If I run the trays longwise (can fit only two per shelf) I can make it work with one light per shelf, and if I turn the trays shortwise (perpendicular to the wire shelving) I double up the lights and can get three trays per shelf. I've done both ways depending on what I'm starting and if my seedlings look like they are bending and reaching for the light and looking really thin, I know they aren't getting enough light. I'm also really bad about only moving my lights up about once or twice per season. In the beginning, I start with the lights lowered very close to the trays, and then things sprout at different rates and I will raise them a bit here or there, but I'm not very careful about it. YMMV! Good luck!

    Bookmark   January 4, 2014 at 11:10AM
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I think that I probably use the same shelf, but beware because some have four shelves and some five. I bought both without realizing the difference. My shop lights are just regular 4 foot work shop lights with two T12 bulbs and I have two fixtures per shelf. Part of mine are older and only 2 fixtures will fit on a shelf, but my newer ones have a narrower reflector.

In this picture I have used chains with "S" hooks, but I have since changed to cords with "S" hooks, because I can change the length much easier because I can pull the cords up without unloading the shelf above, and I couldn't with the chains. Since the lights need to be as close to the tops of the plants as possible (without touching), you will be changing the lights often.

Like Mia, I plug into a multi-plug surge protector so I can just flip one switch to turn the lights on and off, but I wasn't smart enough to buy one with a timer like Mia did.

I do not have a heat mat, but I grow in an insulated building. Most of the time, it has only enough heat to keep my water pipes from freezing if the temperature drops really low.

I use 2 thin mylar-type emergency blankets which I buy for about $3 each in the sporting goods department at Walmart. They are in a small box, and hanging on a rack in my store. They look a lot like aluminum foil but are more flexible. I can usually use them for a couple of seasons. One blanket is draped over the top two shelves and comes down sides and ends. I clip it with clothes pins to hold it in place. The other blanket is just clipped on lengthwise to cover the back and two sides of the shelf. It serves two purposes; (1) the lamp below heats the shelf above it and the blanket holds the heat so I use this area for germination, (2) It is reflective where the light shines on it and provides more light for the plants below. I move the trays from the germination area to a light shelf as soon as I see the first sign of green.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   January 4, 2014 at 4:51PM
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Wow, Carol, I love how the reflective blankets light up the area so well. I might need to try that this year!

Our garage is also insulated (but my shelf is right next to an old, ill-fitting wood door which leaks cold air like a sieve), but we do park in there so every weekday at least we are opening up the door at least four times a day and letting in lots of cold air. I have the seed heat mat on just one shelf and use it for my peppers and eggplants mostly.

Last year, when I started my seeds - in trays with clear plastic lids to keep the humidity high - I had them on the kitchen table near two big north-facing windows and kept them inside just until I saw a bit of green starting to show, then they went out to the garage shelf. I don't have a particular "method," I'm just always tweaking and trying stuff and doing whatever works for me at the time.

    Bookmark   January 5, 2014 at 10:02AM
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Wow, thanks everybody! I knew I could count on you guys :) This i exactly what I need.

Mia, thank you for sharing the pictures of your set-up (and I had to laugh about what you wrote about your secret shame.... my garage is much worse believe me ;) The photos really help - a picture is worth a thousand words sometimes.

Carol, thank you for the photo you shared also - I love how well it reflects light and I'm sure heat as well. I was thinking my insulated garage would be too cold but you all have encouraged me to rethink this. I would much rather have it in the garage than in my 1100 square foot house.

Thanks again for all the information - I'll be setting up my system next weekend!


    Bookmark   January 5, 2014 at 1:46PM
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helenh(z6 SW MO)

If you are at a flea market look for those chains that used to be on swag lights in the seventies. You can use those to suspend your lights and also bend them with pliers to make many hooks. I move my lights up as the plants grow and plenty of hooks help because sometimes when you drop them they go where they are hard to reach. I haven't purchased a fixture in a while. But when I bought mine I liked the Lowes ones better. The reflectors on the Wal-Mart ones made them wider. I put as many lights as I can on a shelf because I plant too early and sometimes my plants are too big. More light is better for them. My latest shelf is a heavy duty unit from Sam's. It is more than four feet wide and deeper. If you haven't purchased your shelves yet look at those.

    Bookmark   January 5, 2014 at 3:11PM
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helenh(z6 SW MO)

I have these shelves from Sam's. They are too wide for the lights but I fill up the space with water jugs and other stuff. When I put them together I put the shelves evenly spaced but I am going to readjust them so the space between shelves is taller. That will make the bottom shelf shallow but that is OK with me. I will put other stuff on it.

    Bookmark   January 5, 2014 at 3:34PM
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If I had to do my setup over, I'd really watch the dimensions on the light fixtures I was buying. I'll link the fixtures I bought at Walmart. It's just the cheap one. They're two bulb fixtures and there should be enough room for four bulbs on my shelf but the fixtures are so wide that one fixture is all I can fit. I bought one at Atwoods a while back that looks more like Mia's. I didn't buy it for seed starting but I ended up swapping it with one of the wide ones. I may go buy another before it's time to start seeds so I can put two fixtures side by side on one shelf at least.


Here is a link that might be useful: Fixture

    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 9:34AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

My light set-up is similar to those that others here have described except my shelves are white plastic. I have two shop lights hanging above each shelf, and each fixture holds 2 fluorescent bulbs. They are on chains with hooks so we can raise them and lower them as needed. This is important because plants growing too far from the lights stretch and get leggy. Leggy plants are weaker and harder to harden off to outdoor conditions than shorter, stockier plants. We put hooks in the ceiling above the uppermost shelf so we could hang two fixtures above the top shelf and raise seedlings there too. My shelves easily hold three flats per shelf but with creative placement and squeezing flats in tightly, I can get 4 flats per shelf for a total of 20 flats of seedlings on the shelves at one time.

It is really easy to over-think this and to spend way too much money on some fancy and expensive lights that you don't need. That just isn't necessary. Simple shop lights with the cheapest bulbs you can buy have worked just as well for me as more expensive bulbs designed specifically for growing plants indoors under lights. I used those more expensive Grow Lights on one shelf one year and its plants didn't grow as well as the ones growing under cheaper shop light bulbs.

All my light fixtures are plugged into power strips so they are easy to turn on and off. You can use a timer to turn them on and off if your schedule is erratic.

I used to start seedlings in standard black flats, but several years ago I switched over to aluminum roasting turkey pans or lasagna pans. Since they are shiny metal, they reflect more light and heat onto the plants. I buy them in packages of anywhere from 12 to 20 at Sam's or CostCo.

There really isn't a right or wrong way to set up your seed-starting shelf as long as you have it in an area that doesn't freeze, that has good air flow and that is easily accessible so you can pop in and check on the plants and pop back out again. You just have to figure out what works for you in whatever space you have available.

If you have indoor dogs or cats who might enjoy sleeping on your seedlings, eating them, tearing them to shreds, etc., keep that in mind when you chose a place to put your shelf. My cats are totally banned from the room with the light shelf because they like to eat plants, but our large dogs (a Rottweiler mix and a Lab mix) sleep in the room with the light shelf and have for several years and they don't bother the plants at all. Be careful when putting it in a garage. Even if you think there are not any mice in your garage, you might find out you have them the hard way....when you walk into the garage one day and discover your plants have been used as Mice Chow. This is a fairly common issue for folks who start plants in a garage or some other sort of out-of-the-way area where humans spend little time in general.

Starting seeds indoors is so very simple despite the fact that we humans sometimes over-think things and make it harder (and fancier and pricier) than it has to be. Just keep it simple and I think you'll be delighted with your set-up and your home-grown seedlings.


    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 12:02PM
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Thank you for all the information guys. This year will be my first time starting seeds so this thread is great!

You guys have covered the shelf information great, but I'm curious what you all use to actually grow the seeds/plants in? Both the containers and the "soil".

    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 3:20PM
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helenh(z6 SW MO)

I use something like Miracle Grow potting mix. I haven't had good luck with the fine Jiffy Mix starters because of poor drainage. If I have it , I add extra perlite because I am not as skilled as Dawn in watering properly. Poor drainage is my worst enemy with seedlings. If you will look at recent posts Dawn has described how she grows seedling someone just asked this question. I use containers from last year's purchased plants for early containers and move them to bigger ones as they grow big. I save every 32 oz soda cup and use a variety of plastic containers. Solo cups and Styrofoam cups work well and are easy to use.

This post was edited by helenh on Tue, Jan 7, 14 at 10:43

    Bookmark   January 7, 2014 at 10:40AM
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You can start seeds in almost anything. Many of my starting containers don't even have drain holes in them, but those I mostly water with a mister.

I use plastic rain gutters, plastic shoe boxes, egg cartons, or about anything else I can place potting soil in. I always pot up to something larger while the plants are small. Here is a picture of some of my starts last year.


    Bookmark   January 7, 2014 at 12:11PM
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I start peas in toilet paper tubes, then just plant tube and all. I have several years' worth of 4 & 6 packs plus more than I need of larger plastic pots that I pot up into. If I am going to give plants away I pot them up into fastfood drink cups of different sizes. I've used Miracle Grow potting mix too as well as the Jiffy mix starting mixes. I do find that with any commercial mix I need to fertilize a bit if I hold the plants for very long. I use Miracle Grow fertilizer.

    Bookmark   January 7, 2014 at 1:09PM
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I often use Jiffy pellets, as I've had good luck with those but some people hate them. If I'm using my own small pots or cups - or potting up or growing cuttings - I use Miracle-Gro Seed Starting mix.

    Bookmark   January 7, 2014 at 2:35PM
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The problem I had in the past with jiffy pellets when I first started sowing seed is squirrels digging them up, this happened often enough to make me think they can detect the pellet in the ground and think they are pecans. Must be some kind of squirrel radar. I also don't like how soggy they can get or how quickly they dry out. They are more expensive than using home made starter mix and recycled pots etc. that I always have on hand.

Remember the one car garages we used to have back in the old days? Even better, the ones not attached to the house? That rather spacious, organized, poured concrete floor, finished walls, modern, 2 or 3 car insulated garage looks pretty neat. I live in the urban part of the city where the houses were built in the 1920's. We'd all have to have a big laugh at that "messy garage". Some of our quaint little detached structures are actually big enough to hold a car, if its not too big that is.

This post was edited by GreatPlains1 on Wed, Jan 8, 14 at 3:26

    Bookmark   January 8, 2014 at 12:19AM
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My garage is older than I am, but since a lady never reveals her age, I won't.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2014 at 5:19PM
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Dulahey - I've had tremendous success with the coconut fiber pressed block growing medium. I found it last year at Home Depot on 19th Street in Moore in blocks. Much less expensive and goes farther than the ones I ordered on-line. Just FYI


    Bookmark   January 8, 2014 at 11:14PM
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Setup my seed starting system today!

Here is a link that might be useful: Picture of my setup

    Bookmark   January 13, 2014 at 9:37PM
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