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Convert an IKEA Shelf into a DIY Seed Starting Station

Pumpkin Seedlings

I live in a 786 square foot house that has no basement, only one and a half closets, and a lot of books. There is no place to set up an extensive seed starting operation. So, ever since we moved in, I’ve resorted to buying seedlings for all my warm season crops and direct sowing everything else. But this year I decided I wanted to start just a few of my own seedlings. I went to IKEA, bought an IVAR shelving unit, and set about converting it into a seed-starting station. Once the seed-starting season is over, we’ll use the shelving until to store garden supplies in our garage. Below you’ll find step-by-step instructions for building the station, plus some modifications I’d make if I was building this again (and had a bit more space).


To get started you’ll need the following equipment:

* 1 bookcase with adjustable shelves, plus an open back and sides (such as an IKEA IVAR shelving unit. Mine is 30 inches x 12 inches x 48 inches)

* 2 22-inch under-cabinet florescent lights

* 4 7/8″ hooks

* 6 feet of small-link chain, such as #16 single jack chain, cut into 18-inch pieces

* 4 3/16″ by 1 1/2″ eyebolts and matching wing nuts

* 4 1″ S-shaped hooks

* Extension cord

* Automatic light timer


Step One

Start by modifying the light fixtures so you can hang them from the bookcase. Remove the light cover and bulb from the fixture. There should be two screw holes or slots in the base of the fixture. Insect one eyebolt into each hole, make sure the eye is on the outside of the fixture and the bolt is on the inside.


You don’t want the bolt to interfere with the lightbulb. So, place a wing nut on the bolt and screw it down a few times, making sure that the end of the bolt does not extend past the wing nut’s “wings”. Before you replace the lightbulb, pull the eyebolt through the hole until the wing nut is flush with the top of the fixture on the inside. This will mimic the position of the eyebolt when it is hanging and allow you to double check the clearance of the bulb. Put the lightbulb back into the fixture. If the bulb will not fit, unscrew the wing nut a few turns and try again. If bulb clearance is still an issue, use a standard nut and a thin washer instead of a wing nut to secure the bolt. Once the bulb is in place, replace the light cover. Repeat this process with the second fixture.


Step Two

Now it is time to screw hooks into the bookcase so you can hang the light fixtures inside the case. This is easiest if you remove the top shelf from the bookcase. You want the fixtures to be centered in the bookcase and the hooks to be exactly above the bolts in the fixture. For a standard IVAR shelf (32 5/8″ by 11 3/4″), start in the upper right hand corner. Measure in 8 inches from the short side of the shelf and 3 or 4 inches (depending on your light fixture and where the bolts are) from the long side. Mark with a pencil and then screw a cup hook into place. Repeat at each corner. Once all the hooks are installed, place the shelf back into the bookcase. Note: The goal here is for the lights to be centered in the shelf and evenly spaced. If your shelf or light fixture is a different size, simply adjust the hook placement accordingly.


Step Three

Hang a piece of chain from each hook. Attach an S-shaped hook to the bottom of each piece of chain. To hang the lights, hook, the S-shaped hook through the eyebolts. Plug the light fixtures into an extension cord and then plug the extension cord into an automatic light timer. Set the light timer to be on for 16 hours and off for 8 hours during the night (this ensures your seedlings get exactly the right amount of light).


* I think this seed-starting station would work best with a shop light fixture that has two bulbs in it. That way you would only have to fiddle with one fixture. I used two fixtures that are designed to be screwed in under cabinets because I couldn’t find a 2-bulb shop light fixture that would fit in my shelf and plug in (most of them were direct wire). 2-bulb fixtures that plug in are commonly available in a four foot length, so if you have the space, I’d definitely buy a bigger shelf and use that type of light fixture instead. Or, I’ve been told you can easily attach a plug to direct wire fixtures if you have some basic electrical skills (which I don’t have).

* I chose to have chains that were a little longer than I needed for flexibility. You could get away with 14-inch long chains.

* Most seed-starting trays are 21 inches long. Keep in mind with this set-up seedlings planted on the outer rim of the tray might not get enough light, because the bulbs in the fixtures are only 17 inches (even though the fixtures are 22 inches long).

* You could also hang lights from the middle shelf if you wanted to start more seedlings.

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14 Responses to “Convert an IKEA Shelf into a DIY Seed Starting Station”

  1. 1
    Al Says:

    Is is possible to just raise the inside shelf right to the top of the unit and attach the light to the underneath of the top shelf? Or use another shelf just above the seedlings tray to attach the light?

  2. 2
    Willi Says:

    Al–You could definitely screw the lights into the top shelf and then lower the shelf as the plants grow. The only problem with this method is you couldn’t install lights on the middle shelf, too.

  3. 3
    Jamie Says:

    This is a very cool idea… We live in a house that is about the same size as yours so I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out where I’m going to set up 128 starter pots. This would be a perfect setup for my second bedroom. I’m moving the baby chicks out to the garage this weekend before they start smelling up the house so it looks like I’ll be making an Ikea trip to replace the brooder with a seed starting station this weekend!

  4. 4
    Chani Says:

    Beware the “in the off season I’ll use it for storage” thought. I set up some lovely gardening shelves two years ago, grew all my seedlings and was very happy, and then loaded up the shelf with storage and never even considered unloading it once seed starting season rolled ’round again. I’m buying new shelves this weekend. This time I’ll only put easy-to-move things on the shelf. (Right.):)

    Lovely post!

  5. 5
    meg Says:

    Great tutorial! I was at Molbaks on saturday but the babylady was not interested in me getting to listen. So, I’m really glad you posted this! Thanks!
    .-= meg´s last blog ..Old Crow Watching Hungrily =-.

  6. 6
    Grace Says:

    Bwa-ha-ha, I have the same shelf system that lived in my kitchen for a few years, then was a seed starting system in Colorado, and now lives in my greenhouse, suitably covered with dirt and pots. You will love how battered it looks in the picture I send you soon.

  7. 7
    Julie Says:

    I’m wondering what your take is on standard florescent bulbs vs. “aquarium/plant” bulbs vs. full spectrum plant bulbs? I’ve only used the plant/aquarium bulbs in the past, and my seedlings still seem to get leggy, but they are WAAAAY cheaper than the ones marketed as “grow lights”. I haven’t even tried starting seeds under regular florescent bulbs, but there would probably be a lot more light fixture options if those are good enough for the short time the plants will be under artificial lights. Thanks!!

  8. 8
    Angie Says:

    Happy Saturday,

    Could you go into a little more detail about how long to leave the grow lights on each day, do you keep them on until the plants move outside and also if and when to use a heating mat? I had all my little seedlings die and I need some good quick advice to get another batch started.

    Thank you!!!

  9. 9
    Jamie Says:

    Thank you for the inspiration, I just wanted to share my new seedling setup! It’s not the prettiest thing but it works great and takes up very little space. It’s lack of attractiveness is actually a plus in my book because it won’t end up housing other things when growing season is over. Also, it breaks down completely so it’s super easy to store in the winter if you don’t have much space. Here’s the picture link:

    I used a portable greenhouse that I bought at Molbak’s last year for about $40 and then added the lights this year. Right now I’ve got two 24″ grow lights that we already had at the house, then I went out and bought two more 18″ fluorescents ($10 each at Fred Meyer). I’ve got two lights and two seed flats on each shelf. There are two more shelves I’m not using that could be employed too, plenty of space with a tiny footprint (about 20″ x 24″). If I end up planting more flats I’ll be picking up some more of those $10 light fixtures for sure. The nice thing about this portable greenhouse is that it has wire shelves, which makes it super easy to attach the adjustable lights. I just used some rope, knotted and pushed into the hanger on each end of the lights, then I tied them to the shelf above. When I need to raise them I just have to shorten the rope. Putting the whole thing together probably took 20 or 30 minutes.

  10. 10
    Willi Says:

    Jamie–What an awesome set up! Thanks so much for sharing. It is really a perfect small space solution! I think wire shelves are an awesome way to go.

  11. 11
    How To: Easy Seed Starting Indoors « Inside, Out: Home + Garden Says:

    [...] just read the intro and look at the pictures, you’ll miss this great linkĀ  for fashioning a seed starting unit out of an IKEA shelf, which looks like it works perfectly as is, or could be adapted to make [...]

  12. 12
    TWO:Seeding Strategies Says:

    [...] [...]

  13. 13
    Fun Friday Links - An Oregon Cottage Says:

    [...] be good to share with you the DIY system that DigginFood came up with. Grow your seeds under a light using an IKEA shelf…smart! I love, love, love reading about Clay and April over at Coal Creek Farm. Their love [...]

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