These affordable DIY grow lights can grow thousands of dollars worth of garden seedlings and microgreens every year.
We’ve been gardening for nearly a decade. Each year we learn a little more and get a little better at growing our own organic food using no-till methods. Over that time period, we can point to a few key techniques and technologies that have made the biggest difference in our gardening success.
It’s sort of like the 80-20 rule, wherein 20% of what you do, yields 80% of the results. At the top of the list of where we get the most bang for our buck:
- using no-till organic growing methods; and
- our DIY grow lights.
Four Reasons to Use DIY Grow Lights?
There are quite a few benefits to having your own grow light system:
1. Grow Anything You Want
Prior to having our DIY grow light system, we had to buy whatever seedlings happened to be available at the garden center (usually “vanilla” varieties that weren’t very interesting). Now, we can grow the varieties we love or unusual varieties that we want to try – almost none of which would ever be at a garden center.
2. Grow Healthy Seedlings Indoors
Prior to having our own grow lights, we’d also try to start our seedlings indoors in front of the sunniest window in our house. We’d do our best take our seed trays outdoors whenever the weather permitted, which is hard if you’re not home and heartbreaking if a bad storm happens to hit while you’re away.
Since we don’t have very sunny, south-facing windows in our home AND our sunniest windows are UV coated to make them more energy efficient, this often lead to leggy, unhealthy seedlings due to inadequate light. Our DIY grow light system ensures that our seedlings get ideal amounts of light indoors, even when it’s freezing, stormy, or cloudy outside.
3. Grow Microgreens
During periods that we don’t have our DIY grow light system filled to maximum capacity, we’re starting to grow microgreens instead. Microgreens add loads of highly concentrated nutrition and flavor to a meal, and they also provide beautiful garnishes that can turn an ordinary-looking dish into something extraordinary (hence why top chefs use microgreens).
4. Grow Money
If you have a large garden like we do, buying enough garden seedlings to fill out your garden will probably set you back many hundreds of dollars each growing season (we garden year round, including in the cold months). Not to mention, it’s virtually impossible for us to find organically grown seedlings locally, whereas we use organic seed starting mixes, organic fertilizers, and no pesticides on our own seedlings. All the seed trays and cells are reusable (except when we use biodegradable cells) and the fluorescent lights will last for years. So, the upfront investment of a few hundred dollars can easily pay for itself after a single growing season and save you hundreds or thousands of dollars the longer you use it!
How to Build Your Own DIY Grow Lights
We use a five shelf grow light system (74″ high x 48″ wide x 18″ deep). If you want to set up your own DIY grow light system like the one we’ve used successfully for many years, use the materials list below to get exactly what you need.
Materials List for LARGE Five Shelf Grow Light System / Total price ~$350 depending on current pricing on Amazon:
- 48″ Multi-Tier Steel Shelving Unit / two options:
- Option 1: 82″ tall chrome-colored unit with 6 adjustable tiers + wheels – product link (*if you get a 6-tier shelving unit instead of a 5-tier, make sure to purchase 10 fluorescent bulbs and 5 shop light housing units)
- Option 2: A shorter 72″ high steel unit with 5 adjustable tiers + wheels – product link
- 6-Outlet Power Strip – product link |quantity: 1 (it’s a 2-pack)
- 1 Ft Weldless Black Chains – product link | quantity: 1 ft strips x 16 total strips
- 16 S-hooks – product link | quantity: 16
- Zip Ties – product link | quantity: we used 6 but they come in a bag of 100
- 48″ Fluorescent Shop Light Housing – at least two good options here depending on best price and what’s in stock when you order:
- 48″ COOL LIGHT Fluorescent Bulbs – product link (10 pack) | quantity: we used 1 cool light bulb in each housing unit, or 8 total cool light bulbs. There are two good options to choose from depending on price and availability when you order:
- 48″ WARM LIGHT Fluorescent Bulbs – product link (8-pack) | quantity: we used 1 warm light bulb in each housing unit, or 8 total warm light bulbs
It’s very important to use a cool light-warm light bulb combo! See why in the FAQs section below. *If the grow light system above is too large for you, you can opt to get a 24″ wide, 3-tier shelf system, 24″ shop light units, and 24″ cool and warm bulbs.
Setting Up Your DIY Grow Lights:
- Put your shelving units together and into the location of your home where you want them. Ideally, you can put them on a tile or vinyl floor rather than wood or carpet in case of water and soil spills.
- Zip tie your power strips on to the side of your shelves. The top power strip will plug into the lower power strip which will plug into a wall outlet. This allows you to turn all the lights on and off by switching on or off the lower power strip.
- Put the bulbs into the light housing units, alternating cool and warm bulbs. So one shelf with two housing units, your bulbs would be cool-warm-cool-warm or warm-cool-warm-cool.
- Use the chains and s-hooks to hang the lights from the shelf above them. You’ll probably need pliers to pry open and close the s-hooks and to modify the length of each piece of chain. You can easily adjust the chains without cutting them by attaching the s-hooks into the chain links, so that the lights hang at varying heights as your plants grow.
- Plug your light housing units into the power strips and use zip ties to bind up excess electrical lines. Turn the entire unit on using the switch on the lower power strip to make sure all the bulbs work.
- Start growing!
Extra! DIY Grow Lights Frequently Asked Questions
We’ve gotten a lot of questions about using our grow light system over the years, so here’s a list of FAQs to help you:
Question: Do I need to keep my grow lights on before the seeds germinate?
- Answer: You typically don’t need to turn your grow lights on until AFTER your seeds have germinated. However, here are some reasons we’ll turn our grow lights on for specific circumstances:
- If we’re starting a lot of warm weather seeds indoors (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, etc) that will sprout faster in warmer soil, we’ll turn our lights on and put the seed trays ON TOP of the light housing units. The lights run about 80°F, which is like having a seed starting heat mat – the perfect temperature for heat-loving seeds to sprout.
- If you’re growing “light-dependent” seeds that have to be surface sown and require light to germinate, your grow lights will need to be turned on prior to seed germination.
- If you’re worried about mold forming on the soil surface. Good air circulation and not overwatering is usually all that’s needed to keep mold from forming on top of the soil surface in the cells. However, UV light can help too. If you have unusual seeds that take a long time to germinate (1 or more weeks) and/or your grow light system is not in a room with good air circulation, it might be a good idea to keep thems on even before the seeds have germinated.
Question: Do seedlings need a simulated night and day? How long do I leave my grow lights on once the seeds have sprouted?
- Answer: Yes, plants need to “sleep,” just like people do, so simulating a day-night cycle is important to grow healthy seedlings. You can either turn your grow lights on when you wake and turn them off before you go to sleep OR get an automatic timer and set it to turn your system on/off at specific times.
Question: How far above the top of the plants do my grow lights need to be positioned?
- Answer: We keep our fluorescent bulbs no more than 1-2″ above the top of our plants. If the bulbs are directly touching the plant, the leaves may get sunburned and wilt.
Question: Can I immediately transplant my seedlings outdoors or do I need to “harden them off” first?
- Answer: The intensity and UV index of the sun is much greater than that of your grow lights. That’s why you’ll need to “harden off” your seedlings for about 7-10 days before you transplant them outdoors – assuming you haven’t already been bringing your seed trays in and out as weather allows. Hardening off your seedlings allows them to acclimate to the intensity of natural sunlight and allows toughens their stems and leaves to wind.
Question: How do I “harden off” my seedlings?
- Answer: Here’s how to harden off your seedlings:
- Days 1-3: 3 hours of direct sunlight (or put your seedlings in a shady spot).
- Days 4-6: 3-5 hours of direct sunlight (or put your seedlings in a part shade spot).
- Days 7-10: 5-8 hours of direct sunlight.
- *If your plants start looking wilted or sunburned, move them back out of direct sunlight asap and give them 2-3 days to recover in a shady location. Also, keep in mind that your trays will dry out faster outdoors on warm, sunny days than they will indoors under grow lights, so keep an eye on their water needs.
Question: How long do the fluorescent bulbs last?
- Answer: It depends on how many hours you use them. We use our during each season and they’ve lasted for multiple years, producing healthy plants each season. Every type of fluorescent bulb is different, so there are no absolute answers here (the packaging should give you estimated life expectancy of your bulbs). If you’ve been using the same bulbs for a while and your seedlings seem weak and leggy, swap your bulbs out asap.
Question: Why do you use cool and warm light fluorescent bulbs?
- Answer: Sunlight contains the full ROYGBIV light spectrum that plants need to grow. The two most essential light spectrums are RED and BLUE. Red spectrum light = plant growth and flowering. Blue light = proper plant size, density, and proportions. By using offsetting cool and warm fluorescent bulbs in your light housing units, you ensure that your plants get a wide range of light that approximates the sun’s full spectrum, thereby allowing you to grow healthy seedlings and microgreens:
- “Cool white” fluorescent bulbs – yellow, green, blue spectrum with a kelvin range between 5000 – 6000K.
- “Warm white” fluorescent bulbs – orange, red spectrum light with a kelvin range between 2700 – 3500K.
We hope this information helps you take your gardening game to the next level! Have other questions about making or using your own DIY grow lights? Ask us in the comments!