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What "Bright, Indirect Light" Actually Means When It Comes To Houseplants

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Bird of Paradise House Plant In Indirect Sunlight

When skimming houseplant care guides, you're bound to come across the phrase "bright, indirect light" at least a few times. Popular leafy varieties like pothos, philodendrons, and peace lilies all prefer this lighting type (and that's just the P's!). But what exactly does bright, indirect light look like in a house or apartment? Probably not what you think.

Why bright, indirect light is a confusing term.

Darryl Cheng, the engineer turned houseplant enthusiast behind House Plant Journal, has seen many people move their houseplants away from windows in search of this illusive indirect light. "Right away, when people hear the term indirect light, they think they need to avoid the sun. They end up putting the plant far from the windows in a dark corner," he tells mbg.

This is the wrong approach. To understand what indirect light really means in the context of houseplant care, we need to look to outdoor gardening first. Indirect light is a riff on what outdoor gardeners refer to as partial shade or full shade. Cheng explains that even though full shade sounds like total darkness, it's actually an outdoor spot that receives zero to three hours of direct sun a day.

"It's not that shade means an absence of sun all the time," he explains. It means that at some point of the day—maybe up to three hours—the sun could be shining on that spot."

OK, so back to our indoor plants. If they prefer indirect light, they, too, need to get less than three hours of direct sun exposure (key word—direct!) a day. But considering the layout of most homes, they are unlikely to get more than that anyway, even if they're placed directly next to a window.

That's because compared to outdoor gardens, greenhouses, and natural areas where plants thrive, our homes are pretty cavernous—they give plants a very limited window to the light of the outdoors. If you take on the POV of a houseplant (as Cheng has taken the liberty of doing on his Instagram), you'll notice that at least half of their surroundings are walls or ceilings that offer zero sun exposure.

This means that the light indoors will almost always be less intense and less direct than the light outdoors, so "indirect" light is probably a given in your space.


Where to put your plant to accommodate its lighting needs.

Cheng says most people would be better off forgetting about the "indirect" part altogether and just placing their plants in bright, sunny spots to see how they do. Chances are, they will thrive right in front of a window or below a skylight.

If you are lucky enough to have really large windows that offer an unobstructed view of the sky, though, there is a small chance your plants will get more than three hours of direct sun exposure a day. In that case, you can move them farther from the windows if you want, but Cheng says that blocking the window during direct sun hours with white, sheer curtains will probably be healthier for the plant.

"It's not like direct sun will instantly kill a plant," he explains. "In fact, if you try to avoid the sun, your plant is just going to die really slowly." Just keep in mind that the more light a plant gets, the more water it will need, so you may need to adjust your watering schedule after moving a plant to a brighter spot.

Moral of the story: When it comes to houseplants, sunlight is hardly ever something to avoid. All plants, even lower-light ones, need the sun's rays to grow and will probably shine next to your biggest and brightest window.

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