DETERMINING YOUR LIGHTING CONDITIONS
Customers that walk into our shop often ask two things when buying a plant from us. The first question is usually when walking out the door and sounds something like "how should I care for this plant?" and the second question comes from pet owners about whether their pet will be ok if it decides to chew on the plant. This post will go into care considerations for your plant, in particular how much light to expose your plant to. For pet-related considerations, view this post here.
The most important two factors related to your plant's health are water and light. Additional factors include soil composition, humidity, temperature, USDA hardiness zone (outside), pests, and vessel (pot). We'll talk about light in this post, specifically for indoor plants.
When choosing where to put your new plant (let's assume it's in a standard terra cotta clay pot), it's important to know what kind of plant you have, and what kind of light that type of plant naturally thrives in. If you don't know what kind of plant you have, start by narrowing it down. Is it a cactus or succulent? Succulents have big fleshy leaves and are full of sap (what the term 'succulent' means in latin). If not, what does the plant look like? A fern? A tree? A palm? Try and find something similar on our site and narrow it down. In the plant world, plants are grouped into plant families based on similar characteristics and genetic makeup. Big plant families include ficus, peperomia, pilea, begonia, palm, cacti, succulent, calathea, philodendron, and so on. Once you're able to figure out what kind of plant you have, you can start to learn about the preferences of the family in which your plant belongs. While not entirely true across the board, plants of the same family tend to require the same type of care. Remember, plants are alive and have preferences. While plants can survive (like an animal) under conditions that they don't prefer, they would be much happier in an environment that they enjoy, and when they are happier, they give you more new growth (which is the whole reason to collect plants).
Ok, so we've tracked down which family and variety of plant you have. Now it's time to do something with the plant in order to make it happy. Let's start with the basics. Not all light was created equal. People live in lots of different places with more or less light, so it's important to understand what someone means when they say "medium indirect light." Light can be classified as direct or indirect. Indirect light can be low, medium, or high. Direct light is sunlight that literally touches the space you're thinking about. For example, if your windows get sunlight in the morning during sunrise, and the light shines in your eyes and touches your face, that's direct sunlight. If you see the sun during sunset and it hits your face or shines directly onto your walls, that's direct sunlight. For starters, examine your home at different times of the day and determine if and where you get direct sunlight. Your plant is like an animal, if you put it in direct sunlight, chances are it will get sunburnt and you will kill it. In our home, we live on a rooftop with large West-facing windows (and no other windows), so we get direct sunlight only after the sun starts to set over our roof at about 2-4pm depending on the time of year. Because the sun makes an arc over our roof and sets at an angle (we are in New York, whereas someone near the equator would have a higher arc), we get large bright triangles of direct sunlight in the corners of our windows from about 3pm until the sun goes below the horizon (between 5 and 9 depending on time of year). Those are sunburn zones. We can (and do) leave plants in those corners, but we know now which plants can tolerate the direct sunlight without dying (cacti, succulents, ficus).
The other areas of our home get indirect light. Indirect light is reflected light. The sun lights up the sky and some of that light reflects into your space. High indirect light is light that is blindingly bright, despite the fact that no direct sunlight is hitting anything in the space. Think office buildings with windows on all sides, on a high floor of a building. There are no obstructions around to block sunlight, and the interior walls are white which reflect lots of light. Most plants love this type of light. High indirect light is the easiest light in which to grow plants and keep them happy because they can maximize photosynthesis without getting sunburnt. Obviously certain plants grow under direct sun in the wild, but even most tropical plants growing outdoors prefer growing under the partial shade created by a jungle canopy. If you have high indirect light, place ficus, cacti, succulents/aloe, philodendron, palms, and many variegated plants about 2-5 feet from the windows to maximize sun exposure while minimizing the risk of any direct sunlight hitting the plant or drafts coming in through the windows in the colder months and bothering the plants. When placing the plants, be sure to check for any AC or heating vents and avoid putting the plant directly beneath them. Do a quick hand check and feel where the vents blow, and find a place beyond where there is any moving air to place your plant. AC, heat, and moving air in general can dry out soil faster than normal, making it harder to get your watering routine right.
Medium indirect light is light that is reflected, however the light is maybe 40-70% of the strength of high indirect light. For spaces with brick walls, low windows, and partially obstructed windows, you're generally looking at medium indirect light. If you work in an office where you never need to close the shades and you're always looking at the people in the building across the street (think NYC), you're most likely in a space with medium indirect light. Fear not, because calatheas, pileas, peperomias, begonias, and many other beautiful plants thrive in medium light. As noted above, place these plants near windows with the same considerations towards drafts, heat, AC, and other moving air (including temperature changes between day and night). Also in spaces where the light is predominantly high indirect light, you may get some medium indirect light near the interior of the space where the reflected light is more diffuse. Think desktops and shelves near doorways and interior walls. These areas are also great for the medium indirect light-loving plants mentioned in this paragraph.
Low indirect light is natural daylight that requires artificial lighting in order to clearly see. You may have windows that get some natural light, but they might be almost completely obstructed by buildings (think interior windows inside an airshaft or North-facing windows blocked by other buildings). These spaces are tough spaces to make plants happy, which is unfortunate because they are prime candidates for using greenery as a way to cheer ourselves up. The good news is that there are a few plants that will tolerate lower light such as sansevieria (snake plants), rubber plants (ficus elastica), ZZ plants, and aglaonema (Chinese evergreen). These plants are the hardiest indoor plants and can often handle a wide range of lighting conditions and still put out new growth. When placing these plants in low indirect light, be sure to put them in areas that maximize the light to give them a better chance of survival. Again, beware of any drafty areas.
One question we hear on occasion in our shop is whether we carry any plants that will thrive in areas with no sunlight. While it is possible to grow plants under artificial light with no natural daylight, this type of setup should be considered advanced plant cultivation as there are several other factors involved in making plants happy under lights (lumens, kelvin, duration, distance). In general it's safe to say that if you have no windows, you unfortunately do not have a space where plants will grow and we recommend checking out artificial plants and electronic air purifiers.
Now that you're a pro at determining the lighting in your spaces, you're armed with the information you need to get the right recommendation from your plant vendor when you find yourself plant shopping!