My No-Cost Grow Lights

My No Cost Grow Lights for Starting Seeds

Today, I want to share how I start herb, veggie and flower seedlings for my garden, without a fancy grow light system.

Before I get into the details, I want to say a big “THANK YOU” for all of your help in filling out my survey the other week! I was so happy to learn that the overwhelming majority of you do want to hear more about my nerdy farm life and all of its related ups and downs! While I certainly won’t abandon my DIY body care, herbal recipes or soap making projects, I’ll start interspersing a little farm life here and there and see how it goes.


Rascal, Hanging Out With Some Seedlings On the Front Porch

From Instagram: Rascal the Rescue Kitty, Hanging Out With Some Seedlings On the Front Porch

The Problem:

Several years back, I decided to branch out from buying the limited selection of plants at my local garden center and instead, start heirlooms from seed.

It sounded so easy in theory.

The reality was that I killed quite a few poor little plants at first! Over time, I learned not to overwater, underwater or crowd seedlings, plus the fact that baby plants benefit from a little fish emulsion every week or two once their true leaves start appearing.

Seedlings also need light. Lots and lots of light. This one was tough for me. The one spot in our house that gets enough sun happens to be right in the one spot my daughter’s bed fits in her room.

I tried moving the trays from sunbeam to sunbeam during the day, but my seedlings still got tall and leggy. (Not a good thing.)


Heirloom Tomatoes in August

Heirloom Tomatoes in August

The Solution:

One day, while looking up the cost of grow lights and lamenting the fact that my budget was so slim, it suddenly dawned on me that the lights in my basement looked pretty much the same.

I did a little research and found that yes, you can use regular fluorescent bulbs for growing plants. Hooray!

So, I went right down in my basement, took the thin cover off of the nearest fluorescent light, pushed a (really heavy) bookcase under that light, then stacked boxes and books until I had just the right height for my seed tray. It took a little trial and error to figure out how close it should be. (I keep them really close, but not touching, the bulb.)

This is what my fancy setup under one light looks like:

no cost grow light setup using basement lights

In the morning, I wake up and turn on the lights. At night, I flip them off.

In January, I started broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. In February, I’ll start tomatoes, peppers, basil and many other warm weather veggies, herbs and flowers. Those trays stay on top of my refrigerator (peppers especially need that extra warmth to germinate) until they’ve all sprouted, then they go under a light too.

A handy little tool I use for figuring out when to start seeds, or plant seedlings outside, is Clyde’s Garden Planner. (I bought it HERE from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co for only $3.00.) You slide the red line to your area’s last frost date and it tells you recommended planting times for spring. If you flip it over, you can do the same thing for fall crops. It’s an excellent chart, but I still go a little bit earlier than it suggests (because we all can’t wait to get that first tomato of the season!) :)

Clydes Garden Planner

I have one final hard earned lesson to impart –

Whether they’re store bought or home grown, don’t leave your lovely baby plants hanging out on your front porch if you have free ranging chickens, or this sadness happens!

Broccoli plants decimated by the chickens.

Broccoli plants decimated by the chickens.

If you enjoyed this post, let’s keep in touch! Sign up HERE for my once-a-month(ish) newsletter where I share my latest herbal and DIY body care projects along with soap recipes and little snippets from my farm life. You can also find me on Pinterest and Instagram!


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Jan Berry is a writer, herbalist, soapmaker, and bestselling author of three print books: 101 Easy Homemade Products, Simple & Natural Soapmaking, and Easy Homemade Melt & Pour Soaps. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her family and a menagerie of animals, where she enjoys brainstorming creative things to make with the flowers and weeds that grow around her.

  • Good morning, I enjoyed this post-and I loved your diy solution-very clever!
    I buy most all of my seeds from Bakers-love their company and their seeds.
    have a good week ahead-I have been teaching myself how to spin on a drop spindle this winter-next up is my wheel

    • Jan says:

      Good morning and thank you Kathy! I love Baker Creek too – they have the best selection (and prettiest catalog) around. That is really cool that you are teaching yourself to spin – you always have the most interesting crafts going on! :) I hope you have a wonderful day and week!

  • Melanie says:

    Your grow lights are so perfectly clever, I truly laughed when I saw the photo. My grow lights have always been shop lights hanging from the ceiling in the basement, but at least they were second-hand shop lights. I’m just starting my broccoli and leek seeds here in my high-altitude zone 5. Hooray for gardening season!

    • Jan says:

      Thanks Melanie! :) Shop lights are great – My husband got one for his tool/work area the year before last and I borrow it from him too, when the tomatoes get out of hand. (I have a seed buying addiction and heirloom tomatoes are my biggest weakness.) (How can you choose just one type? Or twenty?!) I really like that it has adjustable chains; makes it so much easier than balancing wobbly towers of books and boxes!

  • Carol Samsel says:

    your lighting system looks so much like something I would do :) I’m lucky to have a few good windows and a creative grow light system I use in my spare bedroom. Also last year I tried a method called Winter Sowing with milk jugs outside .
    I had some decent results and learned a lot of what to not do etc. So this week I am starting more milk jugs outside. I will still start seeds inside too… but this gives me more options. I’m in a Zone 5 or the new 6a :)

    • Jan says:

      Winter sowing is a good idea too! I tried that a few years back, but I couldn’t quite get a good balance between too much moisture and not enough. It’s something I’ll keep working on though! Happy Gardening! :)

  • Genevieve says:

    I am just interested to know when your last frost date is if you are already starting seeds… Just curious…
    I am in zone 3 so I still have a long wait till spring!!

    • Jan says:

      Hi Genevieve! I’m in zone 7 so our last frost date is April 15. My raised beds warm up pretty quickly in the spring though, so I usually push that date a little early and just cover things up if they call for frost. (Though I’ve lost some plants due to impatience some years!) We use wall-o-waters with some of the tomato plants to get them in early too. I know it’s sooooo hard to wait until spring – I hope it comes quickly for us all this year!

  • Catherine Clark says:

    I have never had success growing indoors. I use a different method now, using milk cartons and putting the seeds in soil inside them and putting them out the end of February/beginning of March. They are already hardened due to being outside and I have a high success rate for germination.

  • Tammy says:

    I don’t know where you live but I saw that you were teaching yourself to spin. In Mansfield the third Monday of every month we meet at 10 for a spinning and weaving guild. Lots of different levels of expertise. It’s a great group of ladies. Come join us and visit.

  • Cyndi says:

    Florescent lights are unhealthy and bad for environment amd should not exist. They contain mercury and emit mercury in to the environment. When they break its even worse and some times they just randomly explode on there own. Then disposing of them so many just through them in the trash when they need proper disposal. Then if it needs special disposal it should not exist. There are so many better alternatives. LED for example.

  • We use fluorescent fixtures too. You can buy full spectrum bulbs for them (otherwise known as plant lights). Recently we bought some full spectrum LED light bulbs that I’m going to try with the little reflective shade like they use around a chick brooder heat lamp.
    PS My husband, an electrician, says it is better to leave your fluorescent lights on 24/7. The bulbs last longer and it uses the same amount of energy because they use quite a bit of energy to “start up”.

    • Jan says:

      Thanks for the information Venessa! I’m definitely going to look into LEDs. My thought with turning off the lights at night is to more closely mimic the light conditions the seedlings will encounter once in the garden, but you know – I’m not sure if that matters at that stage? (Something for me to add to my things-I-need-to-look-up list!)

  • Anne-Marie says:

    Oh I can’t wait until we can start the garden =) Another month…

  • beth says:

    Hi Jan, My plants always get leggy and I use grow lights, they are not kept as close as yours are do you think maybe that’s why mine get so leggy? I never start them until April for that reason and it still happens maybe some of your insight might help thanks.

    • Jan says:

      Hi Beth! I think you’re right that they would benefit from being closer to the light. I keep mine adjusted so they’re almost touching the light (but not quite) as they grow.

  • […] to prevent this, I rig up a spot for all of my seedlings under my basement fluorescent lights (like this) or under a shop […]

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