big rig: my circa 1989 seed-starter stand

YOU CAN BUY ONE IN A CATALOG, or you can make your own seed-starting rig as I did 20 years ago. It’s still growing strong. I promised the details in a comment the other day, and got reminded of my stray remark, so here they are:

In 1989, the stand cost $175 to build, including three shop-light hoods and the six tubes to fill them (one warm, one cool bulb in each unit). It took a handy friend five hours to create. Today it would cost more, but perhaps you have some of the materials, like leftover plywood from another job that you could piece together?

seedrigScale the design down to accommodate, even making it just one level. And think about other bits to recycle: Perhaps the debris in your garage includes an old shop-light hood that can be called into action? Better yet: Have a castoff bookcase or shelving unit that could be remodeled into this kind of set-up?

My seed-starting stand is a big rig (I like writing that: big rig) and can hold six flats plus miscellaneous small pots all at once. To big for most rooms in the house, it’s meant for a basement or somewhere else it won’t be in the way. Ready-made rigs, light included, that hold just two trays are the cheapest way to go; those that hold anywhere near this much are harder to find, and in hundreds of dollars. My evolved seed-starting gear, circa 2016.

I scanned my plan from a 20-year-old photocopy, forgive me, which accompanied the story I wrote about it that first winter in Newsday newspaper (where they have a great garden writer these days, Jessica Damiano, if you haven’t met her).  The stand, nearly 6 feet tall, 5 feet long and 2 feet wide at the lower shelf) is made from these materials:

  • ¼-inch plywood (shelves)
  • 2×2’s (top lengthwise member that also holds upper light hood; crosswise members to hold hoods above lower shelf; small blocks to prevent shelf slippage)
  • 1×2’s (legs, shelf supports, cross braces between legs)
  • 48-inch 2-bulb shop lights, plus bulbs (hood size may vary)
  • chain
  • screw-in eye hooks
  • S-hooks (2 per hood)
  • Polyurethane to seal and protect shelves
  • Sheet-rock screws to screw it together; wood glue to reinforce joints

We beveled near the top of the 1×2 leg pieces and mortised 2 inches in from the ends of the top 2×2 brace, to really give the structure strength. That’s what’s detailed in the round “thought bubble” in the illustration.

Think of my design as merely directional, and go from there. It needn’t even be an A-frame; up to you. Plan proportions that fit multiples of the average size of a flat, with some wiggle room. The trays need to be right under the lights (which is why my bigger shelf is a double-wide, with two shop hoods). Nobody grows well sitting outside the direct light.

The feature you mustn’t skip, though: making the height of the lights adjustable (hence the chain and S-hooks). Read my seed-starting basics page before proceeding to learn why.

A timer would be a nice addition, set for 14 hours a day or thereabouts. Again: The seed-starting basics page has all the how-to detail (hopefully) that you’ll need, once you get a light setup of some kind in place.

  1. Johanna says:

    What a great setup! I wish I had one. Instead, I’ll be setting up the plastic shelving unit near the south facing window. I do have a shoplight somewhere that I used at my old house, maybe I can figure a way to attach it.

    At my house the MOST important element is chicken wire surrounding the trays, to keep cats from grazing those delicious new seedlings. Aargh!


  2. Rick says:

    Yes, that is one “big rig” of a starting stand. It does have that long term, long lasting look to it however. Build one of these and you won’t be needing a replacement anytime soon.

    Thanks for the tips and the diagram. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go saw up some lumbar.

  3. HVFarmGirl says:

    I LOVE your GREAT big rig!

    A carpenter who used to work here about ten years ago built me a rig for my seedlings. It’s not very big but it’s a real ugly beast. I love it. I’ll send you a photo when it comes out of hibernation.

  4. melissa says:

    This is fantastic! Filing this one away for my future garden plans when I don’t live in a 3rd story flat! How about some pictures of it once you get your seeds started in a few months?!! That would be awesome!

  5. Linda Jean says:

    In later winter of 1995, I came home from a weekend business trip to find that my husband (defintiely a non-carpenter) had built this for me (it must have been in MS Living, no?). My initial seed starting efforts in the library had been less than successful the year before. Within a few years, my seed trays had outgrown the ‘rig’ and it is now part of a larger operation in the old milk room of the cellar of my 1915 house.

  6. Linda Jean says:

    (I hope you don’t keep getting variations on this email as I seem to be having technical problems- but here I try again)
    In late winter of 1995 I came home from a weekend business trip to find that my non-carpenter husband had built this for me. Since then, my seed trays have outgrown the ‘rig’ and it moved into larger operations out of the old milk room in the basement of my 1915 home. Every March and April my house eerily glows at night from the basement windows due to the number of fluorescent lights.
    But this makes us remember that back in 1990-1991, when we were living in NYC for a fellowship training year, I picked up what I think might have been the first issue of MSL (the one with Martha holding a seed tray). I was hooked and couldn’t wait to move back out of the city and start a flower garden. My husband visited every kiosk and newspaper store on the upper east side religiously for months asking for the next issue of MSL- he is convinced that he is personally responsible for a successful grassroots advertising campaign that led to the magazine’s success. But our gardens are wonderful and we have a garden party every July up here in Syracuse, NY.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Linda Jean. Thanks for joining us. The plan was printed in Newsday, where I worked; I frankly cannot recall if I wrote about it as well for Martha. I am glad that you and your seeds and garden are prospering…sounds like quite the operation. Talking about “big rigs.” See you again soon, I hope.

  7. Martha says:

    I made the identical stand about 8 years ago–minus the bevels and mortises. I can’t remember where I found the drawing–perhaps in a letter someone sent to Fine Gardening. Mine is a little rickety since I’m not much of a carpenter. I use those big cardboard building blocks my kids used to play with to adjust the height of the flats, so I don’t have to keep changing the height of the shop lights.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Martha. The blocks sound like an easy solution to tray height; good idea. Thanks for visiting A Way to Garden, and hope to see you soon again.

  8. Karen says:

    I hope this is not a silly question or that I’ve missed the obvious here but must the light bulbs be “grow lights” or can they be regular fluorescencts?

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen. I have always used the cheap, easy combo of one warm-white and one cool-white fluorescent tube, nothing fancy, in a plain metal shop hood, but there are also special grow-light bulbs that are much more costly. Regular will do you fine; key is that the light needs to be very near the plants and adjustable as they grow. Go with the plain kind of blubs, I think (sometimes now certain brands are called daylight and more balanced than the old ones were, so you get two of that same kind in that case, but the idea is to get a good spectrum of light). See you soon again, I hope.

  9. lisahutchurson says:

    Love the set-up, and the name Big Rig! Will be following the plans exactly, as I plan to be setting up a patio vegetable garden (in containers and raised beds) on my deck this spring – with one modification. I’ve found those plastic tie-wraps to be a little bit easier to work with than the S-hooks and chains. When you need to adjust the height, just put on the new tie wrap at the new height and cut off the old one. Cheap metal shelving units (you can temporarily steal them from your garage) are also a quick, user-friendly option.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lisa; nice to see you here. It’s a beast of a thing, and this year my sister is using it at her house and I am using a smaller version TBD. Trying to figure out what leftovers here and there I can turn into a smaller rig. Great tip about alternatives to chain and hooks and such, thanks, and see you soon.

  10. TC says:

    That’s a nice set up Ms. Margaret. A little bit more elaborate than my boards on cinder blocks grow-light shelving. I put mine together seven years ago for around $50. Your’s would be a good upgrade.

  11. Jeff says:

    For those without carpentry skills, a wire shelving unit would also work as a frame.

    They’re available at any big box hardware store and they assemble/disassemble in a flash. I’d measure my flats before purchasing, though; there are many sizes and it would be nice to have a frame that matches the beds.

    Happy New Year, Margaret! I’ve missed you! -not your fault

  12. Suzanne says:

    We use an inexpensive plastic storage shelving unit (6′ high, 4′ wide) from Lowes. My husband rigged it with two 4-foot 2-bulb fluorescent shop lights (the cheapest we could find) per shelf. We hang them from chains hooked into cup hooks on each end of the shelf above, so we can adjust the height of the lights as the seedlings grow. I can get 4 seed trays on each level, and later in the spring, when the plants are tall enough, I put some on the top shelf and use the room’s fluorescent lights for those plants. We do this in our garage, beginning in early March (we live in a Zone 1A area of Alaska) through late May, when it’s warm enough to roll (my husband added heavy-duty wheels) in and out of the garage during the day to harden off the plants. Works great and we can use the shelves for other purposes when they’re not holding lights and plants.

  13. Diane says:

    I make starter pots out of newspaper that has been wrapped around an appropriate size container – about a half inch longer than the container – moistened with water and folding the bottom over itself – remove the container and add soil, plant your seed and the container goes right in the ground – roots are never disturbed and the paper becomes part of the soil!

  14. Debbie says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time now, and saw the mention of seed starting and ended up here – as I am always looking for a new, better way to start seeds. I was so surprised to find the exact same seed starter stand that my husband built for me MANY years ago! We modified it to place a shelf at the very bottom (floor) and added two more shop lights, as it always seemed that I have more seeds than space! It certainly isn’t pretty but I am willing to make the decor sacrifice for great variety that starting your own seeds provides. The best part is that it can be completely unassembled and returned to the attic for the next season! Looking forward to your lecture at Springfest in NJ in March!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Debbie. Glad to hear you’ll be a Springfest, too. Nice. I can’t fit it in my house anymore, truthfully, so I am more limited for space (and frustrated!) but my sister makes good use of it still today.

  15. Clea says:

    Hello! We are going to build something similar. At what height should the lights be from the plants? We will be growing tomato seedlings. I have always just done it on the window. Thanks!!!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Clea. You want to be able to move the light (or the plants) as the plants grow so that the light are always a few inches from the lights, whether the plats are small or big. SO you need chain or something else to adjust the distance as things grow.

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