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Hey plant friends!
I’m Maria, the "Plant Killer Turned Plant Lady" with a mission to help you care for plants successfully, grow your indoor jungles, and cultivate more joy in your life. I've got tons of content for you here on the blog, on the Bloom and Grow Radio Podcast, and Bloom and Grow Youtube Show to help you keep blooming and keep growing.
Do you ever look around your home and wonder if your houseplants are getting enough light to thrive? Without the right amount and type of light, even the most pampered plant will struggle to survive. Yet many of us wing it when it comes to taking care of our houseplants. We stick that new fiddle leaf fig in a corner and wonder why its leaves droop. Or we assume a windowsill equals “bright indirect light” without really knowing what that means.
I know it’s time to bring attention to this overlooked aspect of being a plant parent! That’s why I invited my OG plant friend, Darryl Cheng of House Plant Journal, to explore an engineer's approach to understanding light for houseplants.
Growing Joy: The Plant Lover's Guide to Cultivating Happiness (and Plants) by Maria Failla, Illustrated by Samantha Leung
Darryl explains that plants are like little “solar-powered sugar factories.” The chlorophyll in plant leaves absorbs photons from sunlight, which powers photosynthesis to produce carbohydrates and sugars that provide energy for the plant to grow and thrive.
Without enough light exposure, the plant's “photosynthetic engine” runs too slowly, as if it's constantly skipping meals. This leads to poor growth and health.
When we talk about light, terms like “direct”, “indirect”, and “bright indirect” are vague. Darryl notes there's no standard definition—what you consider “bright” may be totally different than another plant parent!
There are a few key types of light to understand for houseplants:
To truly understand light levels, you need to measure light. Some key terms:
Measuring PPFD and DLI gives an accurate sense of how much light plants are actually receiving for photosynthesis.
However, Darryl explains that even foot candle measurements can be useful for houseplants when you measure the light intensities in different spots and observe how the readings change based on distance from windows, etc.
Darryl emphasizes that all houseplants experience a transition shock going from a greenhouse or nursery to our homes, even if they seem to be doing well. Greenhouses provide light levels of 1000 to 5000+ foot candles, even when partially shaded. Indoors, even bright sunny rooms might provide only 100 to 800-foot candles maximum. This means all houseplants are like on a light-restricted diet. Maximizing natural light is critical, even with hardy plants like pothos.
On Darry’s website, there is a helpful light requirement guide referencing ideal foot candle levels for common houseplants as a starting point. Use it to make choices about what plants work best in the light conditions your home provides.
Grow lights allow us to supplement natural light. Distance from the bulb matters; even a few inches can drastically change the intensity plants receive.
Use a meter to measure the light level at the top of the plant canopy and adjust the height of your grow lights accordingly to deliver optimal brightness.
For beginners new to houseplants, Darryl suggests:
For more advanced houseplant parents, Darryl recommends investing in a light meter. Rather than vague guesses, measurements allow us to create consistent lighting conditions to set our plants up for success. We can zero in on small adjustments that make a big difference in growth and visibly see the impact.
To nerd out on lighting like Darryl, check out his new LTH Light Meter to measure light, temperature, and humidity in your home. Let data guide your troubleshooting to become an even better plant parent!
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