How to Find the Right Light for Your House Plants
You water regularly, have a pot with good drainage and even fertilize - but your new house plant still isn't thriving. Did you ever consider that the missing piece could be light?
When planting outdoors, sunlight is top of mind. How much shade does a plant need? Where in the yard should you plant for trees that need full sun?
But light requirements are just as important for indoor plants. Are your house plants getting enough - or too much - light for their optimal growth and health? Here's how to tell.
Why Sunlight Matters for House Plants
Indoors or out, plants derive their energy to live and grow from sunlight. If a plant isn’t getting the right amount of light, it can fail to thrive. It may be more susceptible to diseases or pests, it may start to wither or turn brown, and it may even die. Considering what light an indoor plant needs before situating it in your home is key.
So - what type of light is best for growing plants indoors? There's no absolute “best” light that works for every plant. Instead, you need to consider each plant’s native light conditions, and mimic them as best you can indoors.
Each house plant has different light needs. If your plant is tropical, for instance, it’s likely going to need a lot of bright light. Other plants won't like too much bright light, which can burn delicate leaves - they may prefer a spot with medium or low light.
There are three factors to consider when thinking about light:
- Light intensity – How bright is the light? Intensity can range from shade to direct light.
- Amount of light – How many hours per day does the sun shine on the plant?
- Spectrum – what type of light is the plant receiving? Cool or warm light?
It’s ideal to choose plants that fit your home’s conditions, rather than the other way around. And while it is possible to use artificial light for your plant, especially in the winter months, it’s easier to fit the plants you choose into your already-existing light conditions.
Identifying Light Conditions in Your Home
Below, we've listed the types of light you may find in your home, from shadiest to brightest. Use this guide to identify where you can find different types of light in your home, and to choose the right plants for each lighting condition.
Direct light involves the most intense light, typically coming directly through south- or west-facing windows, without any cover from nearby trees, overhangs or curtains. This type of light can be too intense for most house plants - however, some desert plants, like cacti and succulents, may thrive in direct light. Citrus trees, which are used to hot, sunny conditions, will also grow best in direct light.
Bright indirect light is a spot in a room that stays sunny for at least several hours per day but does not receive any direct sunlight. These spots are usually four to five feet from a west or east-facing window, or three to five feet from south- or southwest-facing windows. It can also include light from a sunny window that is filtered by a curtain or outside shade. This is the type of light that most houseplants, including monsteras and fiddle leaf figs, as well as orchids, bromeliads and philodendrons, appreciate most.
Low light locations only get a few hours of light or less, usually in the morning when the sun is less intense. Rooms with few windows, or only north-facing windows, can be in low light, as well as shady corners that aren't in the direct line of any windows. Snake plants, ZZ plants and even pothos plants can survive low light, but may do better in medium light - most house plants are not designed to grow in truly shady areas.
Not sure what light conditions you have? Hold your hand about a foot away from a piece of paper, between it and the light. If you can’t see a shadow or only can make out a faint shadow on the paper, you’re in low light. Medium light produces a blurry shadow, while bright light makes a crisp shadow.
This diagram shows different light conditions in a single room.
What Happens to House Plants in the Wrong Light?
If you don’t place your house plants in the appropriate lighting conditions, what happens? It depends on the plant, but below are some common outcomes:
If a plant is getting too much light, it may have:
- Brown, burned patches on its leaves
- Dry foliage that falls off
- A tendency to wilt, especially when the sun is at its peak
Too much light can cause house plant leaves to burn, like this Anthurium.
If your plant is not receiving enough light, it may experience:
- Limited or slow growth
- New leaves growing in smaller than existing ones
- Gangly or "leggy" growth, with a lot of space between leaves
- Poor or no flowering
- Skinny shoots that grow towards the light
- Stunted mature size
Insufficient light can lead to leggy growth, with leaves spread apart and stems reaching toward the light.
Finding the Right Light Conditions for Your Houseplants
The bottom line: your indoor plants will suffer if they get too much or too little light. The best light for indoor plants is the amount of light they’d get if they were grown in their native habitats - and that changes for each plant.
Light conditions vary based on proximity to windows, as well as the direction the window faces - ranging from bright, direct light to low light. If you’re not sure what type of light one of your plants is receiving, test your light conditions with the paper test described above.
Now, it’s time to check your house plants’ light preferences, and move them as necessary. Keep an eye on plants to make sure they don't appear to be getting too much or too little light - as evidenced by burn spots, wilting or stunted, leggy growth.
Later, when you’re searching for new indoor plants to add to your collection, aim to choose plants that fit the light conditions where you intend to put them in your home.
Here's a quick list for reference:
Plants that love lots of bright light:
- Most cacti and succulents, including dragon fruit cactus, aloe and agave
- Citrus trees and bushes, including lemon trees, lime trees and oranges
Plants that love bright, indirect light:
- Fiddle leaf fig trees and others in the Ficus family
- Alocasia, or elephant ear plants
- Most other house plants
Plants that can survive low light: