Indoor Plants: Using Artificial Light

If you're like me, you love indoor plants and you have a lot of them. Whether they are live plants or artificial plants, plants add a huge dimension to any room. They bring the outdoors inside. If live, they bring oxygen into the room. They are great for softening the hard edges in a room and are a decorator's must have accessory.

So it seems appropriate that we discuss some helpful tips on how to use artificial lighting to enrich your plants and add extra drama to any room in your home. By using artificial lights, you'll be able to grow plants anywhere you want or need them and you don't have to place your live ones near natural light any more. It's also good for the plants since they don't have to adjust to drastic climate changes or differences in light levels. In colder climates, the intensity of light in the winter drops drastically from summer. Plants reliant on natural light suffer during low light months. This makes them more susceptible to disease and insect problems. By providing additional indoor lighting you will really help your plants survive. It doesn't have to be expensive nor difficult to achieve.

How do I know if my plants need artificial light?
Your plants will actually cue you when they aren't getting enough light. They tend to grow taller, weaker stems and the leaves will be a lighter color. The new leaves might be larger and they tend not to have as much foliage. You might also see the inner or lower leaves turning yellow.

Aren't sunny windows enough for plants?
There are many factors that can diminish the light your plants are actually getting. The distance from the source light. Shadows that are cast by other plants. The angle of the sunlight coming in. The varying strength of light from day to day, week to week, month to month. And there's the fact that some varieties just need more light than others.

Are there different types of light fixtures?
There are a wide variety of fixtures available: spotlights, standard lamps, cabinet lights, shop lights, custom plant fixtures. Choose your wattage and buy accordingly. Check the watt ratings. Most boxes list this information. You can also use light units which you can purchase or construct yourself.

What types of light bulbs are available?
By far and away, the most common light bulbs are fluorescent or incandescent. But you can also check out some more intense sources, such as halogen, metal halide or sodium. Bear in mind that these require specialized fixtures and are generally too large for most homes.

Which type of light is best?
Well, it boils down to personal choice and priorities. Fluorescents provide good light, burn less electricity so are more cost effective and produce the least amount of heat. However, they are more expensive to purchase. Incandescent bulbs provide good light as well and are the least expensive to buy. But they produce so much heat, they can't be placed near plants and are costly to run. I personally like fluorescents for home use. Keep one thing in mind, however. Plants prefer to get light from above, so if you're using lights for a dramatic effect by placing them below the plant, the light is not as useful to the plant as you might think.

Should I use regular light bulbs or do I need special plant bulbs?
What you're growing will be a determining factor here. Special grow bulbs that provide the total spectrum of light they need for good growth and blooming will work well for you. However, if you're not growing blooming plants, you don't need full spectrum lights. In that case, regular fluorescent bulbs are adequate for foliage plants. You might consider one cool and one warm fluorescent together. You can now get fluorescent bulbs that fit into a standard incandescent light fixture. When used as spotlights, they will provide inexpensive, cool light.

How much light do my plants actually need?
This of course is dependent on the type of plants your're growing. The best guide is trial and error. The plant will tell you. Most plants need a minimum of 12 hours of light each day. The light can be all artificial or you can use artificial lights to supplement the natural light. Naturally the closer your lights are to the source, the more light they will absorb. Your high maintenance plants may require up to 16 hours of light each day. I have found that the darker the leaf, the less light it needs and plants of the rubber tree family seem to be very hardy and able to survive most anywhere.

How do I know how many lights I need?
The rule of thumb, generally, is that for every squre foot of plant, you need to provide 15-20 watts of light. Just keep close watch over your plants. Just like a baby crying, your plant will let you know if more light is needed.

Are there some more specific recommendations on how much area lights will cover?
To light a 2'x4' area with a lamp fixture that is 24-30" above the table or floor, plan on two 48" 40 watt fluorescent bulbs. For early germinating and early growth stages, four 48" 40 watt fluorescents work best and will cover a 3'x4' area. Use 20 watt tubes for confined areas such as terrariums. A 100 watt incandescent spotlight will light a 2'x2' area if mounted within a foot of the plants.

Can I put my plants too close to the lights?
You only need concern yourself if your bulbs are incandescent, since they generate a lot of heat. Plants can be placed within a few inches of fluorescent bulbs without harm. You'll be amazed at the difference in your plants simply by placing them very close to a light source.

Can plants have too much light?
While plants do need a regular period of darkness each day (just like us), it's practically impossible to provide too much light. You can get timers that will turn your lights on and off at specified times each day and this is also good as a security measure for your home.

Is there anything else I can do to make better use of my lights?
Adding reflectors on your fixtures will gather the stray light and redirect it where it is needed. If the walls near your lights are white or a light color, this will help. If your walls are dark, you might consider covering them with a reflective material such as silver mylar or aluminum foil. Dusting your bulbs and your plants occasionally will increase the light and your plant's ability to absorb it and breathe properly.

Quick Links to July Newsletter
Lighting for House Plants
How to Select House Plants
How to Decorate with House Plants
How to Water Garden and Landscape Plants
How to Water House Plants
Caring for House Plants
Master List of Decorating Tips
July's Newsletter (2005)
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