Houseplant Lighting 101

Plant aficionado Hilton Carter breaks down the dos and don'ts of light exposure for indoor houseplants.

hilton carters plant lighting tips
Photo: Hilton Carter © CICO Books

Between his home and studio in Baltimore, Hilton Carter cares for over 300 houseplants, making him somewhat of an indoor gardening aficionado. "I've been bringing plants into my home for the past five years," he says, "but I've been dabbling with greenery for over eight." Carter just released his first book, Wild at Home: How to Style and Care for Beautiful Plants, and it's brimming with insights on living with houseplants, including how to feed, water, pot, and style them. And perhaps more importantly, Carter shares the wisdom he's learned on how to provide proper lighting for indoor plants, which he says is crucial to the livelihood of your houseplants. "Light is a plant's life source," he explains. "Plants need a certain amount of light to thrive and in order to be a successful plant parent, you must know exactly how much light your particular plant needs."

Here, he shares an excerpt from "Let the Light In," the section of Wild at Home devoted to proper indoor plant lighting, along with a few personal tips. From window direction to when to rotate them, read ahead to find out how to achieve the right amount of light for your beloved houseplants.

hilton carters plant lighting tips
Hilton Carter © CICO Books

Know Your Window Light

"With the right light, any plant can thrive in your space," Carter says. "The key is knowing what type of light you're working with and the type of directional light that's coming into your windows." In Wild at Home, the pro offers a handy guide for understanding how much light your houseplants receive depending on where they are in your home.

Window Direction and Light Levels

Understanding the types of light you have in your home will make a big difference to the choice of plants you can place in those areas. Here's a breakdown of the types of light your plants will receive in the northern hemisphere, depending on the direction in which a window is facing (these directions will be reversed if you live in the southern hemisphere):

  • Northern Exposure: Medium to bright indirect light
  • Northeast Exposure: Medium to bright indirect light. Depending on the time of year, direct sunlight in the morning
  • Northwest Exposure: Bright indirect light
  • Eastern Exposure: Direct morning sunlight to bright indirect light
  • Southern Exposure: Bright indirect light to medium light
  • Southeast Exposure: Bright indirect light
  • Southwest Exposure: Bright indirect light to direct afternoon sunlight
  • Western Exposure: Bright indirect light to direct afternoon sunlight
hilton carters plant lighting tips
Hilton Carter © CICO Books

Identify Your Plant and Its Light Category

"I'd tell anyone trying to find out what light works best for their plants to figure out exactly what type of plant they have and then do the research. Read a book on the topic or go to your local nursery and ask an associate for help." In Wild at Home, Carter offers a list of some of his favorite types of plant for each light category.

Different Light Categories

For growing greenery indoors, there are four light categories: low light, medium light, bright indirect light, and, lastly, direct sunlight.

Low Light: This is the least amount of natural light you can give a plant before it will be unable to thrive or produce as much new growth as you'd like. Low light can be gauged either by eye or with a light meter. I often find myself only placing plants in low-light areas because I have a spot in a room that is just calling out for a plant to freshen it up. When this is the case, I use plants that will work in a low-light setting.

  • Low-light plants include: Epipremnum aureum (golden pothos), Calathea lancifolia (rattlesnake plant), Zamioculcas zamiifolia (fern arum/ZZ plant), Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant), and Spathiphyllum wallisii (peace lily).

Medium Light: This is in the middle between low light and bright light. Okay, perhaps that's too obvious. In other words, medium light is when your plant is exposed to light that isn't coming from a direct source. This might be light that's reflected off a building sitting across from the windowsill or light that finds its way through the leaves of a larger plant. Put simply, your plant can be placed in areas of your home that don't see the sun, but do become bright throughout the day. For me, I try to "eyeball" this by knowing I can get away with placing a medium-light plant at least 6ft (1.8m) away from a bright window.

  • Some medium-light options would be: A variety of Dracaena, Maranta, Dieffenbachia (dumb cane), Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant), and Philodendron ‘Rojo Congo'. But, of course, any of the plants that can survive in low light would love medium light as well.

Bright Indirect Light: Whenever someone asks what type of light their plant will thrive in, I tell them bright indirect light without hesitation. Bright indirect light is everything to every plant. Honestly, I don't believe there is one plant that won't thrive and give you the look you desire when exposed to bright indirect light. But what exactly is it? To me, bright indirect light is when a plant is sitting in a window with full exposure to the outside, while never being exposed to direct sun. This could be because the window doesn't receive much sun or is covered in sheer drapes (curtains). Bright indirect light is basically a filtered and diffused light. Imagine being outside on a cloudy day-the light you experience there is bright indirect light.

  • Your bright indirect light options include: Ficus lyrata (fiddle-leaf fig), Ficus elastica (rubber plant), Crassula ovata (money tree), and, honestly, any other type of plant you can find.

Direct Sunlight: This is exactly what you think it is. The sun is coming directly into your window and touching your plant. While most of us regard this as harsh and hot exposure, it really depends on the time of day. I always recommend placing a fiddle-leaf fig, for example, in a spot that receives bright indirect light and no direct afternoon sun. That's because morning sun is less harsh and won't burn the leaves of your plants. However, there are some plants, such as desert plants, that love being kissed by the hot sun all day-especially cacti, succulents, and palms.

Rotate Your Plants Every Other Month

Once you've identified the right light category for your plants and placed them accordingly, Carter says not to forget to rotate them every other month for even light distribution. From Wild at Home:

Rotating Plants

Make sure to rotate your plants every two months or so. When I first got Frank, my fiddle-leaf fig, I noticed at some point that the branches closest to the window would grow new leaves most consistently. To encourage a balance of growth, rotation is key. So, do it!

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