Build a $25 Indoor Seed Starting Station

Eli (7 yo next week) saves seeds out of watermelons and dries them to grow later. Also: papaya, cantaloupe, grapes, persimmons, tomatoes, and bell peppers. He doesn’t even like bell peppers. He just likes seeds.

Naturally, this child needs an indoor seed starting station but we don’t have a sunny enough window for it and anyway, Peter Fossel says a window is not a good place for seed starting (and he should know). So I priced out grow lights, and indoor grow centers, and choked on my banana sandwich. Hundreds of dollars, just for the lamps… then there are special shelves and reflectors and oh my!

So of course I turned to my friends on the OG forums for advice. They said: Make your own, here’s how. So if you find this little how-to helpful, go ahead and thank me. I’m not ashamed to take credit for someone else’s ideas.

How to do it:

This project may cost you slightly more or less than $25, depending on what you have on hand. If you’re a building supplies salvage/pack rat like me, and willing to learn from my mistakes, then you might get by for a little past $15. Otherwise, it might cost you considerably more in lumber… but probably still under $50.

Materials list:

  • One 4-foot flourescent shop light from Walmart, with hanging chain and pre-installed plug ($10)
  • Two 4-foot flourescent bulbs ($7.50 for two–I thought I needed one cool and one warm, so I purchased two packs; you really only need the cool bulbs, so purchase one pack and save a little cash)
  • Four cinder blocks (actually, you may need more than this–I was designing for child height) (we already had these on hand)
  • Some 2 x 4’s. Really, that’s as much detail as you’re going to get from me, because I measured a bit but mostly I winged it. Just know that you’ll need a couple 2 x 4’s if you’re gonna do it my way. (We salvage stuff from shipping crates and other places, so we had these lying around.)
  • A plank that will serve as a shelf–any old large, thick piece of plywood will do, or a purpose-made shelf, it doesn’t really matter. About five feet long is good.
  • Some miscellaneous bits of 1 x 1 or similar.
  • Power screwdriver, screws, a drill is nice.
  • Two eye screws.

Okay, here’s what you do. Feel free to improvise. That’s half the fun. Or trouble. However you want to look at it.

1. Choose a location. A window is completely unnecessary. All you need is about five feet of working space, preferably not full of junk like this:

Junk

2. Build the base using cinder blocks. Do this after cleaning out the junk (or at least moving it to another location where you can trip over it later). Choose the height you like to work at–mine are about 25 inches high, perfect for my little gardener. An adult would want a taller base. Place the cinder blocks about 3.5 to 4 feet apart.

Cinder block base

3. Add a plywood (or particle board or whatevs) shelf. Try to be lucky like me and find one just the right size in your garage so you don’t have to cut it.

Add the shelf

4. Gather the materials for the hanging thingy. This is where you’ll need the 2 x 4’s. You want the thingy to be about as long as your shelf, and about two and a half feet tall. Or so. You need two 2 x 4’s the right height, and one about five feet long (or slightly longer). Again, try to be lucky and find the pieces in your garage (free) in just the right lengths (so you don’t have to cut).

5. Attach the matching 2 x 4’s perpendicular to the long 2 x 4 (you see how scientific this can get), to make a frame. There are many ways to do this, most of them much better than the way I chose, but what I did was take four little bits of 1 x 1 (or whatever–little square lumber stuff) and use them as braces to hold the shorter 2 x 4 in place, and screwed them in–two screws into one 2 x 4, and two screws into the other. Like this:

Building the hanging thingy

This is what it will look like when you’re done, if you do it my way (sorry, I don’t have pictures of the other sixty ways to do it):

Completed hanging thingy

6. Take the hanging thingy inside and attach it to the shelf. Don’t be dumb like me and try to screw it together right-side-up in place so that you have to stick your head underneath and through a tiny crack to see what you’re doing and get sawdust in your eyes. Instead, leave the hanging thingy upside-down and put the shelf on top of it like this:

Attach the shelf to the frame

7. Put the whole contraption in place.

Put it in place

8. Assemble the light fixture. Here are the things I bought (this is the $25):

Fixture and bulbs

The fixture came  with two little chains for hanging and looks like this:

Light fixture

If you’ve never installed flourescent bulbs in a fixture before, this may take some fiddling. The end of each long bulb has two little prong thingies. The fixture has a sort of track, through which you slip the prong thingies, and then twist the bulbs until they lock in place.

Installing the bulb

9. Install eye screws to hang the fixture from. These do not have to be hefty–the fixture is pretty light.

Install eye screws

10. Find an outlet you can actually plug this thing into. That could have been step #1. But then you’d have less opportunity for problems, and problems are how we grow. So please wait until you’ve built the entire thing in place before you find out if there’s a nearby outlet in working order. Then, try to plug your fixture in.

If you live in a 1950s home that’s never been updated, you may run into this handy problem:

1950's 2-prong outlet

However, if you’ve lived there very long, you will have an ample supply of two-prong converters lying around, so it’s really not much of a challenge after all (unless you count the potential for burning the house down, but I really consider that more of a hazard, which has very little redeeming value but is, at least, cheap in the short term):

Two-prong converter

For greater personal growth, choose a location near an outlet that is both two-prong and also no longer in working condition. That’s the ticket. Spend the next ten minutes determining whether the problem is with the outlet or the fixture. This may require you to find another outlet that you’re sure works, preferably one that is already carrying a higher load than it’s rated for (again, this is easier if you live in a 1950’s home. You might want to consider moving to one):

Charmingly overloaded power outlet

Turn the fixture on. When it still doesn’t light up, take a last desperate measure. Read the directions on the fixture’s package:

Read the directions (it only hurts a little bit)

Having done that (and actually followed the instructions, which are better though less technical than these), you may now return to your original location with your functioning fixture. Wasn’t that fun? Plug it in and

Plug it in again.

Rejoice!

11. Hang the fixture and turn on the light. Voila! Note: for best results have a Kitty Inspection performed to ensure satisfactory completion.

Kitty Inspected, Kitty Approved

Final comments:

  • I wish I had made the hanging thingy a bit shorter. I will now have to go buy some chain to make the fixture hang low enough for tiny seedlings or place the seedling containers on top of something to bring them higher.
  • It would be nice to have a timer, as I doubt we’ll remember to turn them on and off at the appropriate times. I can’t even remember to brush my own teeth every morning. Timer will add $10 to $20 to the project, or more if you want a fancy one. Actually, I don’t know how much a timer costs, so that’s just a wild guess. Google it if you really need to know. I’ll wait.
  • I also wish I had used a piece of plywood across the top for hanging the fixture so I could add a second light fixture later, so I could use the entire shelf area. Oh well.
  • The contraption is a bit top heavy, with a not very secure connection between cinder block and shelf. I hope putting heavy soil-filled pots will reduce the likelihood of Death by Toppling Grow Center.

This project could be completed in an unlimited number of ways. I used what I had on hand and my (crappy) carpentry skills. Someone with better materials or better skills could make something much prettier and sturdier. But this cost $25 and half a Sunday afternoon, and it serves the purpose: Eli and his papayas, cantaloupes, and apples will be happy.

I’ll spend $25 on that.

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8 responses to “Build a $25 Indoor Seed Starting Station

  1. Very nice. If you get a second fixture you will already have the bulbs. I use a four tier wire shelf to hang the fixtures from, as I have plenty of these left over since most of the kids grew up and left (at least the ones they didn’t take with them). Your set up gives a bit of workspace, until all space under the lights fills up. Don’t forget to get some big, shallow foil pans to go under the pots. They are great for bottom watering and keeping the water contained until the plants soak it up. Now I’ll have to go back to OG before they find out I’ve escaped.

    • Hi Garden! Glad you made it “out” to see me. 🙂 I think you’re right–I’ll get a second fixture and widen the workspace. And the foil pans are a terrific idea! I can get them at the dollar store. Thank you!!!

  2. Heather–love your station..as I am sure Eli will too!
    Saw the goat escape blog…my gf has an escapee goat too…I think that she upped the voltage on the fence to stop her.?..I’ll ask.
    A true wilderness woman after my own heart.

    • Thank you!!! The station still has some trouble-shooting to do. The light cuts off after fifteen or twenty minutes–not sure if it’s the fixture (which was slightly dented when we got it) or the outlet (which is 50+ years old). And the fence–I think I may not have it grounded properly. Could that cause it to fail? Also, the escapee goes through the gate, which consists of two insulated plastic posts, so I think he’s avoiding the worst of the shock by using his nose to pry that open. I’m think of taking some electrical tape & connecting it to close up the gate before turning it on… I appreciate all the help I can get figuring this stuff out!! Thank you so much!

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