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When it comes to seed starting, it is hard to find a better set up than a vertical, tiered seed starting shelf with grow lights on each level (commonly called a “grow light stand”).  This set-up allows you to grow multiple levels of seedlings in a condensed space and to provide appropriate levels of light and heat for each shelf.  And making your own DIY Seed Starting Shelf system is totally within reach!

There are some beautiful store-bought options for grow light stands (we love the reliable options for Gardeners’ Supply Company).  But store-bought systems can cost anywhere from $500-1000 depending on their size and with what fixtures they are fitted. 

So, we wondered – could we make an equally effective DIY grow light stand for a lot less?

We set out to create a seed starting shelf that was just as sturdy, with high quality lighting fixtures, room for as many seedlings as possible, and the added benefit of heat mats. 

A DIY grow light seed starting stand in use

Spoiler alert – our homemade system cost about HALF as much to build as the lower-priced store-bought options!!

Note: Supplies for your DIY Seed Starting Shelf

In the explanations below we provide suggested products and supplies that will help you to build your own DIY Seed Starting Shelf with Grow Lights. We have added most of these supplies to a Seed Starting Shopping List on our Amazon Storefront so that you can check them all out at once, and hopefully save yourself a few hours of research! With a bit more work, you may be able to find some of these things second-hand, which is also a great option.

Grow Light Stand Shopping LIst scaled
Click on the link above to see all of your supply options in one easy list.

Step One: Find a Shelf for your Grow Light Stand

To begin, we had to choose a shelving structure for our DIY grow light stand.  It needed to be strong, adjustable, and metal with a grid so that we could hang lights from it easily.  We wanted it to have at least three shelves, with the ability to use the top level shelf as an added bonus (with a light hanging from the ceiling) if we wanted.

This hunt was actually pretty easy, as shelving systems like this are available at many home improvements stores as well as on Amazon.  We chose a 36-inch Four Shelf Chrome Unit from Amazon Basics.  This system is adjustable and is sturdy enough to hold plants without wobbling around or feeling unstable. 

You can also choose to go with a 48-inch shelf for more capacity, and added cost.


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Step Two: Choose Grow Lights

Choosing grow lights for our home system was probably the most challenging decision.  We wanted to save money, and considered getting shop lights and replacing the bulbs with aquarium/plant bulbs but we didn’t feel like this mimicked the “real thing” closely enough and our results using this approach had been mixed in the past.

Our frugal goals also meant that we didn’t want to spend $80-100 for each light.  We needed to find something that would be equally effective but not as pricey.  We purchased three grow lights – one for each shelf (mimicking the store-bought version) – but we also had a grow light hanging from the ceiling already that would help us to take advantage.  You could purchase 4 lights to get an extra layer on your system.

We looked at two different options for grow lights:

A Full Spectrum Panel Light looks like a big rectangular box with a bunch of circular lights.  This light is rated highly by vegetable growers and supposedly performs better than T5 bulbs, though it’s unclear whether it performs significantly better than full-spectrum red/blue T5’s. 

The benefit to this panel is that it is 24 inches long, and can cover a surface of up to 36 inches, which means it can cover the entire width of the shelf.  It is also higher wattage than other lights.  It was the more expensive of our two options but we were feeling like we wanted to do this right the first time so we went for it.

These lights turned out to be really easy to adjust in terms of the height from the plant; you can use the metal strings that come with the light to hang it lower and closer to the plants, or you can use the clips that attach to those strings and clip them directly to the book shelf to hang the light higher.

A Full Spectrum T5 Bulb Fixture with Reflector looks more like your typical shop light.  It has two long bulbs fitted into a metal fixture that comes down a bit on the front and back in order to help reflect more light toward the plants.  This fixture is 26 inches long, which means it would cover about 2/3 the width of our shelving system which could work well as the light projects outward; it can also be adjusted easily height-wise. 

This bulb is a bit less expensive than the panel, if you are looking for a little bit of cost savings.  As an added bonus, you can turn one bulb on at a time, providing more flexibility in how you use them.  If you choose a wider shelf, you can get a set of four 48-inch fixtures.

We may try this option for comparison’s sake if we build a second shelf for our seed starting room.


Step Three: Add Heat Mats

While most tiered seed-starting systems actually don’t come with heat mats, we find that using heat mats with our seedlings greatly increases yield and performance. We wanted our system to have them from the start. 

This step was a little bit harder because seed starting heat mats come in lengths that were either wider or narrower than the width of our shelving system.  We decided to get the shorter length so that we could move them around as needed and have them under trays that needed them but not under others.  The shorter length heat mats also mirror the size of most seed-starting trays (about 20 inches) and you can get them in 2-packs.

We chose to get four heat mats (two 2-packs) from BoHo Farm.  These heat mats are waterproof and have nice long cords to reach to a central power strip from any shelf (more on that later).


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Step Four: Add a Power Source

In order to plug in 4 lights and 4 heat mats on our seed starting shelf, we needed 8 outlets.  We had a combined-power strip/timer/outlet, but you can also use two power strips that could be mounted to the end of the middle shelves in order to offer flexibility for lights above and below; the 2-pack of Surge-Protected Power Strips Amazon was a very affordable option. 

You will then want to plug those power strips into a timer which would be plugged into the wall so that you can set your elements to turn on for a certain number of hours a day much like many store-bought tiered systems offer.  We love our outdoor power strip with timer that we have used in the past for growing and holiday lights.

We did these two things separately because we knew we were going to have more than one shelf and needed flexibility, but if you are just building one shelf you can actually get an 8 Outlet Power Strip with a Timer that would serve both functions.


STEP FOUR: Consider Plant Trays (Optional)

Some store-bought tiered grow shelves come with trays to put your plants in to catch water.  For this part of the project, we recommend boot trays – you can get a 2-pack of 30-Inch Boot Trays on Amazon for much less than you would pay for fancy plant trays; order two of those and you have a tray for each shelf (though it will be just a tad narrower than the full length of the shelf).


STEP FIVE: Additional Assembly Parts

There are a few other things you might need to assemble your tiered seed starting stand – like chain link and S-hooks to make adjustable hangers for your grow lights (8 S-hooks, about 8 Feet of chain link) as well as screw-in hooks for your ceiling if you want to put a light above the shelf.



About $340 (find all of these supplies on our Amazon Shopping List)

This price estimate includes:

  • A 36 inch four-level shelf;
  • 3 full-spectrum panel grow lights;
  • 4 heat mats;
  • a power strip;
  • a timer;
  • and trays.

Our conclusion?

If you have the time to research the parts you’d like to use, make the purchases, and build it yourself, you will definitely save money by building your own tiered seed starting stand (almost 50% off the most comparable store-bought version).  We spent about 2 hours researching parts (but you don’t have to now that you’ve read this article!) and then about an hour or two building the actual shelving system.

Keep in mind that this $320 estimate can be lowered if you: buy the less expensive lights; find items at re-use stores or through online neighborhood forums; or skip parts you don’t need (like boot trays).  Likewise, the price can go up a little if you choose to go up to a 48-inch shelving system and buy the parts that will accommodate that larger size.

Also, remember that this is a step up from most store-bought systems that don’t come with heat mats.  You can skip the heat mats if you don’t think you need them, though we highly recommend them.

We have loved having a space-saving high capacity system like (or two) this for seed starting needs, and if you have a garden we think you will too.  It will last you many years to come and ensure even higher success in your gardening endeavors!

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Carrie Williams Howe is an educational leader by day and an aspiring homesteader by night and weekend. She lives on a small homestead in Vermont with her husband, two children, and a rambunctious border collie. She blogs about her family's homestead life at The Happy Hive.

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