Creating my small space grow cart
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Small space gardening means a smaller grow cart, but... I had to build it myself.
Last week, I shared my grow list, which looks pretty extensive, and for the space I have I'm able to do a lot, but while I may list 6-7 varieties of tomatoes, I can only grow 1-2 plants each. A small scale vegetable garden means I don't need a traditional, massive grow cart (aka: seed starting shelves).
Because I won't need room to start hundreds upon hundreds of seeds to fill my garden beds, I wanted something compact. I settled on a space in front of the window in my multi-purpose room - which services as office/gym/craft and hobby room. I will still use grow lights despite being in front of a window.
For a long time, I didn't bother starting my own seeds. When I tallied the cost of 4" starts from the nursery, It would have taken 4-5 years to recoup the cost of a traditional grow cart if purchased "off the shelf" from a hardware store or online retailer. Those things ain't cheap! I rolled up to my favorite garden center every spring with a list of plants and left with just about every plant needed to grow as much of my own food as possible. At least everything that wouldn't be direct sown.
I did get frustrated every year because even though I was buying plants from the same grower at the same garden center, the varieties often weren't the same from year-to-year. One year, I fell in love with Snow White cherry tomatoes but the next year, they had none. This happened with at least one vegetable variety every year, often more.
Then, as my gardening buddy list grew, I was introduced to harder to find tomatoes, peppers, and leafy greens that were better suited to my Oklahoma gardening conditions. This was the push I needed to start starting my own seeds.
Building my shelves
(Scroll to the bottom for a bulleted shopping list)
The first time I tried seed starting, I did it on a small scale, repurposing a wire 2-shelf system I had formerly used to organize a closet. They worked great and perfectly fit standard sized seed starting trays. I also easily found lights to fit on Amazon.
It worked well overall but I did learn some lessons that were invaluable in building my new, but still compact, grow cart.
Happy with the size of the repurposed shelves, which fit neatly in front of a window, I decided to continue with shelves that have the same footprint, just taller because taller means more shelves and more shelves means more space under lights when it is time to pot up.
Seed starting trays (1020 trays) - the kind that typically holds 72 cells/peat pots - measures 11" x 21". Luckily, grow lights can be easily found measuring 24" and for a reasonable price at many garden/hardware stores and online retailers.
With these two factors in mind, I began researching shelves on Amazon. Shelves that fit the roughly 12" x 24" measurements were 5 feet tall, so that determined the height.
Initially, I ordered some shelves that were 12" x 22" thinking that an inch clearance would be sufficient to accommodate standard seed starting trays. I found out I was wrong, because of the lip on the trays. Out of the box, the trays fit snug on the shelves, but once assembled, the lip on the trays made them just a smidge too wide to fit between the posts of the shelves. (Good thing I ordered them early!)
I had saved a couple other options when researching my first purchase and quickly ordered this set, one that measures just a little bit bigger, at 13" x 23". This was a case where size mattered because the addition of 1" on either side made all the difference and my seed trays fit nicely even after the shelves were assembled.
Next for the lights. I learned a lesson about lights the year before. I selected some lights from Amazon and asked for them as a Christmas gift. They barely got me through one spring! And of course, by that time the lights were no longer manufactured and replacements weren't an option.
Following that experience, I decided the better choice was to buy them locally where I had confidence I could get a refund/exchange if they didn't last long. I picked these from The Home Depot where I was also able to add a protection plan for only $6 per light.
Oklahoma is notoriously windy so I wanted to be careful about ending up with leggy seedlings something that leads to lots of issues later in addition to causing plant flop when trying to harden them off. This is why I chose to have 2 lights sets (4 bulbs total) per shelf, but it might be possible to have just one.
You'll notice in my pictures that I only have lights on the top shelf right now. I have additional lights to add, but I'll be able to start all the seeds I need in that one tray. As the plants get larger and need to be transferred to larger pots, I'll need the additional shelves and will add lights to them as I go.
There are a few odds and ends you'll want to also invest in, shown in the list below, but one thing I thought important to point out is the timer with both steady on and timed plugs. The lights should be on a timer. Plants need darkness to rest just like us. However, fans or heat mats might need to be run around the clock and having both options in the same power strip is extremely convenient. You shouldn't need more than four timed plugs either because grow lights can be "daisy-chained," which means plugged into one another, sort of like Christmas lights (only different).
This can be built cheaper, be when considering longevity and durability, I feel like this was the best bang for my buck.
Small Space Grow Cart
13" x 23" x 60" wire shelves (those dimensions are a MINIMUM)
24" LED plant grow lights (after a hard lesson, I chose Home Depot's over Amazon's)
Zip ties (to secure lights to chain)
10" x 20" Heat mat (for peppers and other varieties that like warmer soil to germinate)
Timer/power strip with both timed and steady on plugs