Get a Jumpstart on the Warm and Cool Weather Growing Seasons AND Grow Food Indoors Year Round With This Grow Light Setup

Our family grows a lot of organic food in our yard. By virtue of the fact that we live in Agricultural Zone 7b in Greenville, SC, we get to enjoy relatively warm/moderate temperatures throughout the year, although our winters can get quite cold (nighttime low temps have hit the single digits the past few years). Nevertheless, we’re able to grow food indoors AND in our yard 365 days per year. Yep, the afternoon after it hit five degrees, we uncovered our low tunnel beds and harvested spinach, kale, miner’s lettuce, chickweed and cilantro for a salad.

Gardening: An Investment Worth Making

The National Gardening Association estimates that for every $1 you invest into your garden, you get $8 back. We love helping people learn how to maximize their Return On Investment (ROI) in their garden, get huge yields, and do it all using organic/permaculture growing methods. Of course, organic gardening has a range of benefits that extend far beyond money, as we’ve stated elsewhere.

The highest ROI comes from the stuff you can get or use for free. For instance, most people bag and throw out their fall leaves. However, leaves are an incredible source of free nutrition that you can use to feed your beneficial soil microbes, which ultimately produces more delicious organic food for you. With a couple hours of work, you can get hundreds or even thousands of dollars in return if you use those leaves for your garden.

Some of the other high-ROI things you can do in your garden do require an initial upfront investment of cash. For us, one of the things that has made the biggest difference—and created the highest ROI—is getting an indoor grow light system.

Our grow light system. The shelves are lonely right now, but for most of the year, they're full of plants and seedlings.

Our grow light system. The shelves are lonely right now, but for most of the year, they’re full of plants and seedlings.

Three Reasons to Get a Grow Light System

You don’t HAVE to have a grow light system in order to have great gardening success, but it certainly helps. Here are three reasons we recommend that serious/more advanced home gardeners get a grow light system:

  1. Get a Jumpstart On Each Growing Season – In our Ag Zone, we start our spring and summer seeds indoors in late January through February, then transplant them outdoors after the last frost date. This gives us (and our plants) a 2-3 month head start on the warm weather growing season, which means we get to start harvesting much earlier and for much longer than if we were to direct sow our seeds outdoors once the weather warmed up. The same thing is true when we start our fall/winter seeds indoors in July-August, then transplant the seedlings outdoors in September-October. Also, if you’ve ever started seeds indoors without grow lights, you might also realize how hard it is to get enough sunlight through your windows (even south-facing windows) to keep your plants from getting weak and leggy.
  2. Grow Food Indoors – There are indoor grow systems you can use to grow large plants like tomatoes, but that’s not what we’re suggesting here. The grow light system we use and recommend is designed for starting seeds for transplanting OR growing smaller plants like lettuces and other greens for indoor harvests. Using the grow light system in this article, you can easily grow enough greens and/or microgreens to get a nice daily harvest. If you live in a particularly cold climate, this benefit might be especially attractive since it’s more difficult for you to grow outdoors during the winter.
  3. Improve Seed Germination Rates – We start a lot of seeds indoors and outdoors. No matter where you live, an outdoor growing environment is always going to be a little less “stable” than an indoor growing environment— varying temperatures, soil moisture fluctuations, etc. You’ll use less seeds and have a higher germination rate by starting your seeds indoors under grow lights. Not to mention, there might be hungry insects that are more than happy to chew down an emergent seedling soon after it punches through the soil surface in your garden—not so when you start your seeds indoors. So, you can improve your seed germination rates and plant survival rates by starting your main seedlings indoors, then transplanting them outdoors once they’re 6-9 weeks old. Plus, if you have an edible landscape, more mature plants are more immediately attractive.

How To Put Together Your Own Grow Light System

1. The Parts for Your Grow Light System

The grow light system we use has the following benefits/features:

  • relatively inexpensive and can easily pay for itself in a single growing season
  • easy to break down and set up
  • made with parts that can be ordered from Amazon or found at large home improvement stores like Lowes or Home Depot
  • made with parts you never have to replace (except for the lightbulbs which need to be replaced every 10,000-30,000 light hours depending on manufacturer’s recommendations or visual signs that your plants are getting inadequate levels of light)
  • florescent bulbs produce 3x more light than incandescents, are energy efficient and non-heating (e.g. they’ll grow your plants without really impacting your energy or heating/cooling bills)
  • made with adjustable parts so you can raise or lower each row or each light, AND remove or add shelves as needed

Below are the parts you’ll need to put together the exact grow light setup we use. Note: We’re providing info for two different sized grow light setups using the same materials (option 2 is just a miniature version):

  1. Option 1 “Large” – Five shelf system (74-in H x 48-in W x 18-in D). Ideal if you’re growing in a large garden/edible landscape or if you plan to start/grow hundreds of plants indoors at the same time.
  2. Option 2 “Small” – Three shelf system (30-in H x 24-in W x 14-in D). Ideal if you’re growing in a smaller garden/edible landscape or if you only plan to start/grow less than a hundred plants indoors at the same time. Since you have to buy more customized products, the cost is almost the same as the Large setup.

Parts you’ll need to purchase and their cost via Amazon ( *please note that prices on Amazon change, sometimes daily, depending on sales and product availability ):

Materials List for LARGE Five Shelf Grow Light System:

  • 48″ Multi-Tier Steel Shelving Unit / there are a few product options here:
    • A tall 82″ chrome-colored unit with 6 adjustable tiers and wheels – product link | cost: $77.94 (*since this is the lowest cost, we’ll use it in our total costs below)
    • Same tall 82″ unit as above (82″), but black-colored – product link | cost: $79.86
    • A shorter 72″ high steel unit with 5 adjustable tiers and wheels – product link | cost: $112.86
    • *if you get a 6 tier shelving unit instead of a 5 tier, make sure to purchase 10 florescent bulbs and 5 shop light housing units 
  • 6-Outlet Power Strip – product link |quantity: 1 (it’s a 2-pack) | cost: $9.99
  • 1 Ft Weldless Black Chains – product link | quantity: 1 ft strips x 16 total strips | cost: $35.53 (whole roll)
  • 16 S-hooks – product link | quantity: 16 | cost: $8.89 for a 20-pack
  • Zip Ties – product link | quantity: we used 6 but they come in a bag of 100 (you can never have too many zip ties around) | cost: $5.99
  • 48″ Fluorescent Shop Light Housing – at least two good options here so see which one is better priced on Amazon at the time you’re shopping:
    • product link | quantity: 8 | cost: $11.86 per unit (total $94.88) increased to $21.70 per unit, but may be reduced again      
    • product link | quantity: 8 | cost: $15.47 per unit (total $123.76)
  • 48″ COOL LIGHT Fluorescent Bulbs – two options depending on pricing and what’s in stock:
    • product link | quantity: we used 1 cool light bulb in each housing unit, or 8 total cool light bulbs | cost: $34.99/ten-pack
    • product link | quantity: same as above | cost: $41.99/ten-pack
  • 48″ WARM LIGHT Fluorescent Bulbs – two options depending on pricing and what’s in stock:
    • product link | quantity: we used 1 warm light bulb in each housing unit, or 8 total warm light bulbs | cost: $40.00/twelve-pack
    • product link | quantity: same as above | cost: $41/eight-pack
  • *see Getting the Proper Bulbs info below
  • TOTAL COST: about $350 depending on current Amazon pricing

Materials List for SMALL Three Shelf Grow Light System:

  • 3-Tier Steel Shelving Unit – product link | cost: $38.15 (*Note that the reason this unit is so much less expensive than the 5-tier shelf is that the width and depth are much smaller, so you won’t be able to put as many plant trays on it)
  • 6-Outlet Power Strip – product link | quantity: 1 | cost: $9.99
  • 24″ Fluorescent Shop Light Housing – product link | quantity: 4 | cost: $40 per unit ($160 total)
  • Zip Ties – product link | quantity: you’ll use 3-6 ties, but they come in a bag of 100 (you can never have too many zip ties around) | cost: $5.99
  • 24″ COOL LIGHT Fluorescent Bulbs – product link | quantity: 1 cool light bulb in each housing unit, or 4 total cool light bulbs | cost: $32/four-pack
  • 24″ WARM LIGHT Fluorescent Bulbs – product link | quantity: 1 warm light bulb in each housing unit, or 4 total warm light bulbs | cost: $10/each or $40 for four bulbs
  • (optional but recommended) Heavy duty shelf wheels | Note: these wheels allow you to easily move the entire grow light shelving system whenever, wherever you want – even when it’s full of seed trays. | product link (4-pack) | quantity: 1 | cost: $19.45
  • *see Getting the Proper Bulbs info below
  • TOTAL COST: About $300 before taxes (since the total price of this setup is comparable to the LARGE grow light system, we’d recommend just getting the large setup unless space is a primary concern)
S-hooks and chains allow you to hang your grow lights and adjust the distance between the bulbs and the plants as-needed (and as the plants grow taller).

S-hooks and chains allow you to hang your grow lights and adjust the distance between the bulbs and the plants as-needed (and as the plants grow taller).

2. Getting the Proper Bulbs

As you probably know, light is essential for plant health/growth. Sunlight contains ROYGBIV, the full spectrum of colors of the rainbow that we all learned about in kindergarten. The two most critically important light spectrums are red and blue light. Red spectrum light stimulates growth and flowering, but too much red light leads to tall, weak plants. Blue spectrum light regulates the proper amount and distribution of plant growth, ensuring that all parts of the plant take on the proper size, shape and density.

The color of light created by each type of fluorescent bulb is determined by its interior phosphor coating. You can get really expensive grow light bulbs and lighting systems to proximate the sun, but to get the most bang for your buck, we recommend using fluorescent lights as follows:

  • “Cool white” fluorescent bulbs offer Y/G/B (yellow, green, blue) spectrum lights for your plants. Cool bulbs have a kelvin range between 5000 – 6000K.
  • “Warm white” provides O/R (orange, red) spectrum light. Warm bulbs have a kelvin range between 2700 – 3500K.

So, install alternating cool and warm fluorescent bulbs into your light housing as indicated in the materials list above and shown in the image below. This way, you can mimic nearly the entire color spectrum of the sun, thus growing healthy seedlings and plants.

Alternating cool and warm light bulbs. The bulbs don’t actually look red or blue to the naked eye.

3. Other Indoor Grow Light FAQs

How much indoor light hours do your plants need?
Each type of plant is a little different, but generally speaking, your edible garden plants will do fine with 10-14 hours of indoor light per day. You can buy a timer if you want or just set an alert on your phone/calendar to remind you to turn the lights on in the morning and off at night. Just like people, plants need darkness/rest, so try not to forget to turn your lights off.

More tips: 1) Plug one power strip into the other power strip so that you can just flip a single switch to turn all the lights on or off. 2) Use zip ties to attach your power strips to the side of your shelving unit AND to keep the power chords neat and organized.

How close do you let your plants go to the grow lights?
Keep your plants about 2-5″ from your lights. If your plants start looking thin, leggy and weak, move the lights closer using your adjustable chains and S-hooks. If the leaves get scalded, move your lights higher (very unlikely to happen unless your plants are directly touching the bulb).

Tomato seedlings being started indoors in February. Notice how close the lights are to the top of the plants - we keep the lights a few inches overhead. Too close can cause sunburn; too far can cause weak and leggy plants.

Tomato seedlings being started indoors in February. Notice how close the lights are to the top of the plants – we keep the lights a few inches overhead. Too close can cause sunburn; too far can cause weak and leggy plants.

How often do I have to replace my fluorescent bulbs?
It depends on the bulbs you buy. Each manufacturer puts the estimated “lamp life” on the specs, which are often 20,000+ light hours. After a few years, if your bulbs are still working but your seedlings seem like they’re not growing as well, you may want to consider replacing them early.

What trays, cells, etc. should I get and what starting mix should I get/make?
Since we’ve had comments and emails from this article asking what seed starting trays, etc we use, we’ll quickly provide a bit of info here, then refer you to more detailed articles/videos we’ve created on that topic:

Just in case you’re not already a GrowJourney Seeds of the Month Club member, we’d love for you to give us a try (for free) to see if you’d like to start growing with us! And don’t forget: a GrowJourney Gift Membership also makes a unique and special gift.

Sometimes our articles will contain Amazon affiliate product links. These products have been carefully curated by our team. We use them, trust them, and know they work (or in the case of books, know that the information is extremely helpful). GrowJourney may earn a small commission on any sales that are generated via these affiliate links (without any additional cost to you).