If growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers indoors has been a dream of yours, now’s the time to make it a reality. Once you get a good grow-light table in your home, you can cultivate a multitude of crops. No matter what time of year it is or what the weather’s like outside, you’ll be in control. Grow starter plants for spring planting, microgreens for salads, flowers to brighten your (or someone else’s) day, or herbs for using in your kitchen all year long.
I visited Scott and Susan Hill on their thriving vegetable and flower farm in Louisa, Virginia, to research Scott’s indoor growing table — a low-cost system that doesn’t require an engineering degree to build or use. Scott and Susan start hundreds of plants for their high tunnels throughout the year by placing seed trays on three indoor tables of Scott’s design; each can hold up to 10 seed trays. Scott uses inexpensive PVC pipe for the framework, wire shelving, ordinary 2-foot and 4-foot shop-light fixtures, and fluorescent bulbs.
Most people think it’s necessary to use special grow lights for starting plants and growing indoors long term. Scott and Susan convinced me that it’s possible to skip the expensive grow lights and simply use regular fluorescent bulbs. At Hill Farm, they get excellent results, making me a believer in this low-cost method.
To build your own indoor grow-light table, you’ll need the following materials:
- 1-inch PVC pipe, about 90 feet
- 12 PVC 3-way elbow fittings
- 4 PVC 90-degree elbow fittings
- 6 PVC tee fittings
- 6-foot-by-16-inch coated wire shelf
- 2 shop-light fixtures, 4 feet long
- 2 shop-light fixtures, 2 feet long
- 4 fluorescent bulbs, 4 feet long
- 4 fluorescent bulbs, 2 feet long
- Channel material, 12 to 18 feet
- 4 eye bolts and nuts
- Double loop chain, 16 feet
- 4 S-hooks
- 4 carabiners or quick links
- Zip ties
- 4 casters (optional)
- 6 U-bolts (optional)
Note: You can also use two 8-foot light fixtures and bulbs instead of the 2- and 4-foot fixtures if they’re available at your hardware store. Scott told me that the 8-foot lights are being phased out, and that’s why he uses the 2- and 4-foot combination instead.
Scott designed the lower table around the dimensions of the wire shelf: about 6 feet long by 15-1/2 inches wide. You can set the height of the work area at whatever level is comfortable for you. Dimensions for the upper grow-light support will also depend on your personal preference and on the 90-degree elbow fittings. For stability, keep the height of the upper structure shorter than that of the lower structure. Sketch out your own customized dimensions and develop a cutting list before you get started on assembly.
To begin the project, visit your local hardware store to acquire the necessary materials. Many larger home improvement stores will cut the PVC free of charge. This cutting service will reduce your labor, plus you won’t have to clean up plastic shavings. Once you get your supplies home, begin assembling the table using the PVC pipe and tee, 3-way elbow, and 90-degree elbow fittings. The grow-light table framework won’t require glue as long as you firmly insert each PVC piece into the fittings. For added stability, Scott incorporated an extra 2-foot piece of PVC into the top part of the frame.
After you assemble the PVC pieces, you can set the wire shelving on the frame. If you want your grow-light table to be mobile, you can add optional casters to the bottom of the frame ends using U-bolts and plywood.
After you’ve assembled the PVC framework, cut the metal channel a few inches longer than the length of a 2-foot and a 4-foot light fixture placed end to end. Then, drill holes to match up with the holes in the tops of the shop lights, as well as a hole for an eye bolt at each end of the metal channel. Attach the light fixtures to the channels, and then attach your eye bolts.
To hang the light fixtures, use about 4 feet of double loop metal chain on each end of the light fixture. Use the S-hooks to attach a loop of the chain together near the end of the frame’s top end section. Then, attach the end of the chain to each eye bolt with the carabiners or quick links. You can control the height of the lights above your seedling trays by lengthening or shortening the chains using the S-hooks. Susan keeps the lights about 2 to 4 inches above the seed trays when sprouting, and moves the lights higher as the plants grow. Use an extension cord of suitable gauge for the distance between the nearest outlet and your grow-light table. Attach the extension cord and the power strip to the PVC framework with zip ties.
I didn’t have as much space as Hill Farm, so I built a smaller tabletop version with ¾-inch PVC (see photo in slideshow). This smaller version can support a couple of 2-foot light fixtures, and can accommodate 2 to 4 seed trays. My grow-light frame is made up of four pieces that are 40 inches long (the length), four pieces that are 35 inches long (the height), four pieces that are 26 inches long (the width), and eight corner fittings.
Last March, I started my seeds indoors, giving my tomatoes, okra, peppers, squash, and watermelons a jump-start for the growing season. With more spring rain than usual, starting my plants indoors and keeping them inside until the weather cooperated for outdoor transplanting was a big help. Whichever version of grow-light frame you choose, you’ll be able to grow or start a surprising number of plants indoors all year long.