Build Your Own Grow Shelf!

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Oh my gosh. I can FINALLY do a post on gardening.

Growing my own food is a huge passion of mine (albeit a somewhat recent one), but y’know…it’s been winter.

My grow shelf!

There is no gardening in the winter.

Well, unless you count “pick up fallen tree limbs from the ice storm(s)” as gardening. Which I don’t.

However, this year I DID start a semi-winter gardening project that I FINALLY get to share because…y’know, it’s working so far and there’s something to show to the Internet besides some bare dirt.

I decided to make a grow shelf.

Why I Wanted a Grow Shelf

To grow stuff.


Okay, but more specifically, I primarily wanted a grow shelf to start seeds for the spring, as well as to grow microgreens and (maybe) some full blown heads of lettuce.

My house has some massive western windows that keep my houseplants flourishing, but there isn’t enough windowsill sun to start seeds. Trust me, I know – I tried last year. Maybe it would work better if I had southern windows, or maybe Michigan winters just don’t have enough sun to grow things…I don’t know. Either way, in lieu of a greenhouse (which is WAY to expensive for my budget), I either needed to give up on starting my own seeds, build a super expensive greenhouse, or get a grow shelf.

I also was really intrigued by the idea of growing greens indoors. I got an e. Coli infection from lettuce last year (remember when there was the big romaine outbreak?) and it SUCKED. On top of that, the greens I get from the grocery store in the winter are always soggy and starting to turn brown before I even get them home. At the very least, I figured I could grow microgreens indoors to supplement winter salads with better nutrition and deliciousness.

Building the Shelf.

At first, I figured I’d buy a grow shelf with a special grow light.

Then I saw how expensive they are.


I think a lot of the grow shelves I saw were for growing things intensively indoors, permanently. But I didn’t need to produce tomatoes indoors; I just wanted to get the seeds to germinate and the seedlings to stay healthy until planting time (end of May in my zone).

The other issue I had was my cats. Neither Hess nor Shadow seem terribly

inclined to eat my plants (though Shadow will eat grass), but Hess likes to dig in the dirt and Shadow likes to roll in dirt. These are issues when you are germinating seeds. And who knows how my new kittens will react to plants (they are doing well by the way!). Either way, I needed to figure out a way to keep the cats out of the plants.

After some online research, I figured that I would just buy fluorescent shop lights from Menards. They cheap to buy, cheap to run, and bright enough that it looked like some people were able to start seeds with them. We calculated that all 4 lights, being run for 12 hours a day, will only cost $8 in electricity, per month. Not bad, huh? They also come with adjustable hanging chains, that we easily mounted to the underside of the grow shelves. They even plug into each other, so that we only need to have one cord plugged into the electrical outlet.

We also purchased an inexpensive wire shelving unit with 4 adjustable shelves (here is a comparable one on Amazon, though it was about half the price at Menards). Wire shelves are cheap, and as a bonus, they are very unappealing to the cats. We are leaving the bottom shelf free for storage – and for the cats to “try” to climb onto and discover it is unpleasant.  The next two shelves have the grow lights (two lights per shelf), and the top shelf is currently being used as storage for some the homesteading books I’ve collected for my research.

The wide wire slats of the grow shelf.
See how big the wire slats are? The cats do NOT enjoy walking on these shelves!! You can also see the heat vent directly underneath the shelf. The vent does make the pots dry out a bit faster than they would otherwise, but the heat also helps the seeds germinate.

Ordering the Seeds

I chose to go through Baker Creek seed company, though there are several seed libraries that are supposed to very good. I signed up to receive their free catalog last fall, and spent several enjoyable evenings sipping tea and looking at all the Things I wanted to grow.

By the way, I pretty much want to grow everything that exists.

I wanted heirloom seeds because I intend to try and save some of my own seeds for next year, and you can’t always do that with modern hybrids. Baker Creek carries exclusively heirloom seeds, and they have a large selection of extremely interesting varieties.

I figure that if I’m growing to grow food for myself, I might as well grow COOL food like multi-colored popcorn and purple “green” beans.

My 2019 seed order from Baker Creek.
My 2019 seed order from Baker Creek.

Anyways, I ordered my seeds, and when they arrived I went through each seed packet and made a note on my calendar of when they should be planted. Since I have limited indoor growing space – and I wasn’t 100% my grow shelf would work – I purchased mostly direct-sow seeds. I really only needed to start the peppers, strawberries, and narsturtiums (flowers) indoors.  Oh, and the tomato seeds that Baker Creek included for free.

Starting the Pepper (and Tomato) Seeds

Since this was more of an experiment than anything else, I decided to purchase simple seed starting stuff from the store – some coconut coir seed starting soil mix and little plastic pots. If things go well this year, I will probably start making my own starting mix using compost and other materials in the future.

8-10 weeks before the last spring frost (find out when your frost dates are on this website), I filled the pots with dirt, moistened them, and planted my seeds. I then covered the pots with plastic wrap to help hold in the heat and moisture, which should aid in germination.

Pepper seeds are unusual in that they require some light to germinate, though they don’t need full-intensity light. I turned 1 grow light on during this process.


Literally the same day I started the seeds, Hess decided that there MIGHT be

food under the plastic wrap, and dug through all the pots. She was able to avoid stepping on the unpleasant wire shelf by climbing on the top of a nearby chair and jumping directly to the seed trays.

…thankfully, it was Day 1, so she didn’t do too much damage. She did compress some of the soil, but I had overplanted a bit to account for failures, so I just dug up the seeds, got them re-set in the top 1/4″ of soil, and figured I’d see what happened. And I moved the chair.

Cats on chair near grow shelf.
Here are the cats being cute right after we built the grow shelf but before we planted seeds. Since the digging incident, this chair is no longer anywhere near the shelf!

As a side note, once the chair was gone, she STILL thought there was something good under the plastic, and we had the delightful experience of watching her attempt to climb onto the wire shelves. It was hilarious, and she hasn’t tried since. 🙂


After about a week and a half, nearly all of the seeds had germinated! I removed the plastic, and moved the shelf a bit closer to the grow lights. I’ve been keeping the soil moist, but not waterlogged, and so far there’s been definite growth! I’ve even thinned out my seedlings so that there is only one seedling per pot.

I originally planted two seeds per pot, and nearly all of them germinated. A few of the pots only yielding one seedling, and those were the ones that Hess dug through the most. Soil compression is important, apparently.

Tray of germinated seeds Tray of germinated seeds Tray of germinated seeds

A Work In Progress

Obviously, it is only the end of the March, but so far, so good. I will update you all on this process once I transplant, and we see how these seedlings fare in the yard.

In the meantime, I am also succession planting lettuce seeds and using the sprouts in salads as an amendment for store-bought lettuce. They are delicious and take  very little time to grow. I had an abundance of lettuce seeds from last year, and ordered more this year of better, more bolt-resistant varieties, so I don’t really feel bad about “wasting” the see by eating sprouts.

Lettuce sprouts from my grow shelf
A bowl of DELICIOUS lettuce sprouts.

One Reply to “Build Your Own Grow Shelf!”

  1. It looks like you’re being quite diligent in the germinating process. I’m starting my own little seed germination this week. I bought a kit from Walmart. Hopefully it will be the beginning of more gardening for me. We’re having our drainfield done this week, so maybe I can leave a small part of the yard in upturned dirt condition once they finish.

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