How to help houseplants get enough light

A houseplant that tolerates low light folds up its leaves at night.


Plants and people can’t help but feel a bit wan this time of year, but things are brightening up already. Every day the sun is gradually moving higher in the sky, burning with increasing intensity and duration.

Light is measured in foot-candles – the amount of light cast on a square foot area by a candle at 1 foot distance – and the sun on a clear summer day can bathe us in 10,000 foot-candles. Contrast that with the paltry 500 foot-candles dribbling down on an overcast winter day.

Houseplants’ problems are further compounded by windows, which cut sunlight by another 10 percent.

There are ways you can help them.

One is to clean your windows. Any dirt on the glass cuts down light. While you’re at it, dust or spritz off your plants’ leaves; dust has the same ill effect.

HOW MUCH LIGHT IS ENOUGH? Most flowering and fruiting plants need 1,000 or more foot-candles, although some, such as African violet, rex begonia, flowering maple, zebra plant and crown-of-thorns, will provide colorful displays even at about 500 foot-candles. Below that level, stick strictly to foliage plants such as cast iron plant, Swiss cheese plant, baby’s-tears, parlor palm, pothos and ferns.

You can translate those needed foot-candles into light measured by a digital SLR camera. Set it on aperture priority with the aperture at f/8 and the ISO at 100. Hold a white sheet of paper so that whatever light you’re measuring falls directly on it, and measure the shutter speed reading that the camera gives you (without a flash) for a good picture from about a foot away. Multiply the shutter speed times 4 for the approximate foot-candles. (Shutter speed is usually expressed as a fraction of a second, so a speed of “500” is really 1/500th of a second; for foot-candles, you’d multiply 500 times 4 for 2,000 foot-candles. If light is very dim, the shutter speed might be more than a second; no need to measure, in that case, because in such light any plant will barely stay alive.)

If such exactitude is not your style, just gauge light by window direction. A south-facing window is brightest, followed by east and west-facing windows, with north windows being the darkest.

ARTIFICIAL LIGHT CAN HELP, MAYBE: Don’t expect too much from artificial light, though, especially for large plants, the bulk of whose leaves cannot get close to the light source. A fluorescent light, for example, casts as much as 900 foot-candles of light, but that’s only within 6 inches of the light bulb.

In addition to intensity, the spectral distribution of the light can affect plant growth. Flowering requires more light at the red end of the spectrum; fluorescent light tends toward the blue end of the spectrum.

Bulbs other than fluorescents have their own advantages and disadvantages. Incandescent lights convert much of their energy into heat, so you can’t put a plant close enough for a dramatic effect on growth without scorching leaves. Special high intensity lights, such as mercury vapor and sodium lights, can dramatically increase growth, but the intensity and spectrum of the light will make your living room look more like a hospital operating room. LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs also have potential for indoor plant growing. They are efficient, and the spectral output can be tailored to plant needs.

My own plan is to wait out the sun. It’s reassuring to watch plants naturally gather steam as the days grow longer.