Grow Lights 101: Raising Houseplants in a Low-Light Home

White plug-in wall sconce with indoor grow bulb

As luck (and life) would have it, not all of us are fortunate enough to live in a home blessed with multiple large windows that allow bright natural light to cascade indoors. 

If you're anything like me, you may also have the added challenge of living in a region like Seattle where consistent sunshine is sorely lacking and dark gray clouds reign supreme. As a born-and-raised Washington native, the drab grayness and cold drizzle don't bother me too much. 

Do I wish I could have just a little bit more sunshine in my life? Absolutely. But I can handle the dim lighting a bit better than some of my other light-dependent roommates. I'm talking about my houseplants. 

Living in a low-light region, combined with the fact that my apartment really only has one window that casts any sort of halfway decent light, means that my houseplants aren't always the happiest of campers. This was okay when I had maybe one or two low-light tolerant houseplants (a golden pothos and a simple arrowhead plant). The lighting wasn't ideal, but my plants found a way to endure the dark winters just fine.

Since then, my apartment jungle has grown a great deal. I currently own 15 houseplants – and I'm proud to report that I have only killed one (RIP to my spider plant). While many of my plants continue to be low-maintenance species with moderate light requirements, I have picked up one or two fussier plants that hail from more tropical locales such as a pink pinstripe calathea, or Calathea ornata

As I have learned more about houseplants and further added to my "houseplant wishlist," I have also picked up a few plants that prefer bright, indirect light such as a Ficus tineke, with its beautiful green and yellow variegation, plus a Monstera adansonii and Monstera deliciosa

All this to say – the dim lighting in my apartment doesn't really cut it anymore in terms of care and light requirements for some of my newer houseplant additions. 

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem: Grow lights! 


Pinterest image Grow Lights 101

Why Light Is Important

Alright, here's the ultimate Plants 101 rundown (if you're rolling your eyes at me right now, feel free to skip to the next section).

Your houseplants (or any plant, really) need light in order to grow and survive. Through a process called photosynthesis, a plant turns light energy (plus carbon dioxide and water) into chemical energy that can be stored in the form of carbohydrates and released to fuel the plant's metabolic activities. In short, your plants synthesize their own "food" needed to grow and do plant things. 

A lack of sunlight can make your plants look very lackluster and unhealthy. Signs of light deficiency in houseplants include:

  • Loss of leaf coloring, especially in variegated plants
  • Slow leaf growth (or no growth at all)
  • Sparse or "leggy" foliage
  • Yellowing and dropping leaves
  • Small or stunted leaf growth
  • Leaf browning (in certain species)

Sufficient light is a vital component to having lush, vibrant-looking houseplants!

Should You Use a Grow Light for Your Houseplants?

In a perfect world, we would all have homes with tons of windows and doors to move our light-loving plants closer to, including a few South-facing ones. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. 

For example, I would love to have a plant or two in my bathroom. The humidity from showers is perfect for certain plants (like ferns). However, I am currently living in my second apartment with no window in the bathroom, so there goes that idea. 

As it turns out, homes with sparse or small windows are common, especially in apartment rentals. In some cases, you may have ample window real estate only to find that a large portion of natural outdoor light is blocked by nearby buildings or trees.

This is where a plant grow light comes in. 

A grow light can be incredibly beneficial for your indoor plants if your home (or a particular room in your home) does not receive a lot of bright natural light. As mentioned in the previous section, insufficient light can lead to a loss of coloring in your beautiful variegated plants, as well as sparse or small leaf growth as your plants try to stretch and reach for more light.

If any of your houseplants are displaying signs of light deficiency but you don't have any significant light sources to move your plants closer to, then a grow light may be the way to go. 

In my case, I get an okay amount of natural light in the early morning during the spring and summer. On these brighter days, I don't need to rely on a grow light quite so much. 

In the winter, however, not even the late mornings cast any sort of rejuvenating glow over my plants that need it. During these months, when the days are shorter and darker, my grow light is 100% necessary for my plants' health.


Ficus tineke under an indoor grow light

Types of Indoor Grow Lights

A simple Google (or Amazon) search for grow lights will return an overwhelming number of options. As you browse, you'll start seeing terminology such as "kelvins" and "fluorescent" and "full-spectrum." Additionally, you'll see countless different lamps, pendants, panels, and bulbs. It's a lot. 

Let's break down some of the technical details.

Grow Light Fixtures

Starting at the most superficial level, the kind of grow light fixture you choose is completely up to you and will depend on your home and the actual location of your plants. If you are able to hang lights from the ceiling, for example, then a nice pendant light might be a good (and stylish) option. 

Sadly, I have popcorn ceilings in my apartment so sticking anything into it isn't allowed. If this wasn't the case, though, I would 100% get this beautiful pendant from Soltech Solutions.

If your plants live on a shelf then a lamp that can clamp onto the edge or a light bar that can stick to the underside of your shelves would be a great option. Certain task lamps and floor lamps affixed with a grow bulb might also work for your plants so long as they can sufficiently mimic the placement of the sun (more on this in a bit).

With so many different fixture options, your bound to find a light that works for your situation. For me personally, I have found that a simple plug-in wall sconce affixed with a full-spectrum LED grow bulb does the trick!


Close up of a white wall sconce

Grow Light Colors

Plants use different wave lengths of light for different purposes. 

When searching for grow lights, you'll most commonly see blue, red, and full-spectrum bulbs. Red light is particularly important for flowering and fruiting plants, while blue light is important for general vegetative growth. These colors are most useful as supplemental light for growing seedlings, herbs and veggies indoors. 

For most leafy green houseplants, however, a full-spectrum white bulb is the best choice. A full-spectrum grow light will better support your plants because it includes all wavelengths of light needed for your them to grow and thrive. A full-spectrum grow light also most closely mimics actual sunlight. 

As an added benefit, you won't have a garish red or purple light hanging in your home either. It's a win-win.

Fluorescent vs. LED Grow Lights

There are two main categories of lights you'll come across: fluorescent and LED lights. You may also come across incandescent grow lights, however, I don't recommend them for your houseplants (check out this home guide from SFGATE to see why). 

This blog post from Smart Garden Guide breaks down the differences between the two types of light in more depth than I will go into here, but for me LED lights stand out as the clear winner.

For starters, LED lights are the safest and gentlest option for your houseplants because they give off the least amount of heat. The last thing you want is to bake your poor plants with your grow light. LED lights are also much more energy efficient than fluorescent lights, an important consideration given that you'll likely be running your lights for long periods of time. 

Additionally, LED lights are the least breakable and have the longest lifespan compared to other types of grow bulbs.

Can I Buy Any LED Light Bulb?

It is worth noting here that an LED grow light and a general LED light bulb that you would buy for your home are not the same thing. 

In general, your regular old LED light bulb is not powerful enough and does not have the right color output necessary to nourish your houseplants. It is possible to find a regular LED that will work, but the results will likely not be optimal.

While you and I may just see a bunch of bulbs emitting white light, there are actually subtle differences in the mixture of red, blue, green, and other colors that your houseplants will definitely notice. 

A grow light is more specialized thanks to the customizable nature of LED technology. They contain an ideal ratio of color wavelengths preferred by plants. LED grow lights also emit a brighter, more powerful beam of light than your average household light bulb.

Assorted houseplants on a table under an indoor grow light

How To Use a Grow Light

Once you've selected the type of grow light you want (I recommend some sort of full-spectrum LED white light for houseplants), its time to put it to good use. 

Your grow light should mimic the sun as much as possible. As such, your grow light should by placed somewhere above your plants, shining downward. If you purchase a grow light that clamps onto the edge of a table or shelf, be sure to avoid positioning your light so that it sines upward from the base of your plant. The sun does not shine from below in nature and it shouldn't in your home either. 

Grow Light Distance

Each grow light or bulb will likely come with a set of instructions specific to that product. As a general rule of thumb, you'll want to position the grow light fairly close to your plants (within 2-3 feet but no closer than 6 inches). This will render the light beam sufficiently bright and powerful as to be effective in stimulating growth. 

The bulb I use has a recommended hanging height of 20"-39" and covers an area of approximately 2 square feet. 

If you want to cover a larger area and light multiple plants, you can place the lamp slightly further away. Just remember that the light intensity decreases the further away you move it. If you have many plants to cover, you may need multiple grow lights. 

My wall sconce (affixed with an LED grow bulb) sits about 24" above the surface of the dining room sideboard I sit most of my plants on. The bulb itself is angled towards a handful of my less low-light tolerant plants I have clustered at one end. The grow bulb sits anywhere from 12"-20" away from the top of any given plant in the coverage area.

Grow light distance may also depend on the type plants you have. Low-light plants can be placed further away from your grow light while your more light-loving plants can be placed slightly closer. 


Assorted indoor houseplants on a table seen from above

Grow Light Hours

Artificial light is not quite as strong as the bright rays of the sun. So while your houseplants could do with only a few hours of bright natural sunlight, an artificial light will need to be run for a bit longer to convey the most benefit. Actual ranges vary, but most houseplants grow best with 10-14 hours of artificial light.

In practice, if you turn on your grow light when you wake up in the morning and turn it off when you go to bed, your plants will get ample "sunlight" and be perfectly fine.

No matter how many hours you run your grow light for, you do have to remember to turn it off at some point. Your plants need some shuteye too! 

A dark period is just as good for your houseplants as light. At night, when your houseplants stop synthesizing food because the light has gone away, important metabolic processes happen that keep your plants healthy and further encourage growth.

Can I Use a Lamp I Have at Home?

While it is possible to use floor lamps and desk lamps that you already have in your home, there are several important considerations. 

The light emitted from your lamp should be unobstructed, meaning that a regular household lamp with a shade is not a good option. Additionally, lamps of this fashion will direct most of the light upwards towards the ceiling rather than down at your plants. 

Some sort of task or reading lighting capable of shining a beam of light downward should work well so long as you are able to position the lamp sufficiently close to your plants.

Houseplants on a table and a white indoor grow light

Best Indoor Grow Lights

No matter which grow light you choose, your indoor houseplants are sure to thank you for the extra boost! 

As an interior design enthusiast, I knew that I wanted something functional yet also stylish. There are plenty of cute plug-in pendants and sconces out there perfect for maintaining your home's interior design aesthetic. All you need is a good grow bulb and you're off to the races!

Check out some of my picks for the best grow light ideas below.

Roundup of the best indoor grow lights for houseplants

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