Skip to main content

Let There Be Light for Houseplants

Sep 30, 2020 ● By LaManda Joy
City Grange

Photo courtesy of City Grange

This is the season when many folks are pulling out their favorite sweaters and looking to spend more time indoors, and plant lovers are no exception. Maybe it’s because the veg patch is producing its last juicy tomatoes and looking a little raggedy or the outdoor landscape is winding down. Indoor plants become green talismans to keep us sane through the long Chicago winter. But it’s only October, so there's no need to panic just yet. There are still beautiful fall days ahead and plenty of sunshine and crisp days to enjoy the outdoors. Yet now is also the time to follow our indoor plant instincts and prep for the months ahead.

For the new houseplant owner, starting off can be intimidating. There’s a lot to learn and searching the internet can be overwhelming, with all sorts of strange and sometimes expensive plants with long botanical names touted by people that definitely know what they’re doing. After all, they have hundreds of plants in their homes, so they must be experts… No need to fret or feel inadequate with one or two starter plants. Mastering the houseplant game just takes a little experience and respecting the “big three”: light, water and soil.

Much like an outdoor plant, if an indoor plant doesn’t get the type of light it needs to flourish, it won’t. Unlike outdoor plants, which are usually grown locally, or at least regionally, most houseplants are tropical and come to us via greenhouses in Florida or other warm locales where they have perfect light and temperature with experts to care for them. Landing on our home windowsills might be a little bit of a bummer for them and require some getting used to.

Sometimes a plant that looked fantastic in the greenhouse gets home and starts to look sad fairly quickly. This could be caused by the shock from an extreme change in conditions. Most plants will adjust, given a little time and TLC. But to ensure a newly recuperated plant has what it needs to thrive long term, let’s consider light.

When assessing a home environment for light, first look at the direction the windows face and notice if buildings or trees are blocking light from entering. Check if curtains, blinds and other window treatments or obstructions impact the light. Look at different rooms at several times of the day to determine the level of light houseplants will receive.

Plant care instructions often call for bright, indirect or low light, which can be vague. Bright light comes from a south-facing, unobstructed window. This is the brightest because it lasts all day and can sometimes be too much during the summer. In the fall and winter, it’s excellent for sun-loving houseplants because the sun is lower in the sky and its rays are less intense.

Bright light can also come from an east-facing, unobstructed window in the morning or a west-facing, unobstructed window in the afternoon. This is only part-day bright light, as the light changes as the sun moves across the horizon.

Indirect light can result from any of those exposures (south, east, west), but varies with where the plant is situated, either far away from the window toward the middle of the room or with sheer curtains or blinds covering the windows.

Not every houseplant wants bright light all day long; many can live with less light and actually prefer it. Low light is somewhere in the house where the light is barely indirect or lower. North-facing windows or obstructed windows are often low-light spots. But every plant needs some light, so a windowless bathroom is probably not a good choice for a plant unless we want to think about supplemental lighting.


LaManda Joy, University of Illinois Extension master gardener, author and public speaker, believes the world would be a better place with more gardeners in it. Connect at @PetersonGarden (founder) and @CityGrange (owner). Visit for more information.