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If you know *anything* about plants, then you’ll probably be aware that plants need light. They use it to photosynthesise – the process of turning light into carbohydrates.
In layman’s terms, plants convert light into food. And if they don’t get food, they die.
But here’s the thing. House plants live, you know, in the house. Where there is less light that there is outside.
None of this is news to you. I’m just making sure we’re all on the same page.
And sure, there are LOADS of plants that tolerate low light conditions, but there are very few which will tolerate no light whatsoever.
Ok, there aren’t any.
No plant can live for an extended period of time in the dark. If you want information on which plants are very low light tolerant, read this post on how to navigate keeping plants in a windowless room.
Why would I need extra lights to grow plants?
It’s absolutely NOT required that you purchase extra lights for your plants. There are no grow lights in the rainforest. It’s also worth noting that grow lights aren’t a like for like replacement for the sun – they can help a lot, but they’re no substitute for the real thing.
Here are a few situations in which you might like to get some grow lights:
You have a dark corner you’ll like to add plants to
I have a dingy corner in the back of my living room – I equipped it with a bookcase (the Fjallbo from Ikea if you’re interested) and a set of grow lights (I like these ones from Amazon). Whilst it’s still too dark to have any bright light lovers, it’s great for my overgrown philodendrons and a few Calathea.
You live in a dark house
Some houses just don’t get that much light, and that’s ok. You can still have house plants, but be sure to choose your plant carefully (here are my picks for low light plants). Remember that grow lights aren’t a substitute for the sun, but they could allow low light loving plants to thrive.
Your plants suffer in winter
House plants have a hard time over winter. They typically come from the tropics, and they don’t have winter there. Not only is there less light, but humidity is also lower and it’s colder. A couple of grow lights might just help them along a bit.
We’re just coming out of winter now, and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t lose any of my plants. I wrote this post on keeping plants alive over winter if it’s something that you’re worried about or struggling with.
Your plants need some extra tlc
It’s always a good idea to have a little hospital area or any sickly looking plants and adding a grow light may help them to get back on their feet.
You could argue that poorly plants may prefer to be in natural light, and that’s broadly true BUT you don’t want to risk burning them, chilling them (windowsills can be cold in winter), or risking any other plants on the sill.
This is especially true of plants like calathea that just won’t appreciate being exposed to bright sunlight. Sure, you could add a sheer curtain, but it’s probably a hell of a lot easier to just order some grow lights from Amazon.
Which lights do I recommend?
My recommendations are on my resource page, and they come in at under £30. They’re the clip-on kind, so you can just attach them to a bookcase or table, and they’re angle-poise so you can point them wherever you need to.
They look like this:
Recently, I inherited some aquarium lights from boyfriend, and attached them to my shelves with zipties (they come with an adhesive backing that is VERY STRONG so don’t stick it to something that, er, you don’t want it to stick to.
Do I need specialist grow lights, or will LED lights do?
You can absolutely use regular LED lighting, and your plants will be able to do a bit of photosynthesising from it.
For example, if you have a dim corner with a ZZ plant or a golden pothos, a snake plant, then a regular lamp will do just fine.
However, your plant is unlikely to thrive, depending on how dark the corner actually is. It won’t necessarily die, but you’re unlikely to get much new growth, and if you do get any, it may be pale and sickly.
If you just want a plant for aesthetic reasons, then this is absolutely fine. In fact, I kept a few large philodendrons in a corner with a regular lamp for months (I did eventually level up to grow lights) because I didn’t need my plants to grow any more. They were already huge.
Did they stop growing? Er, no. My philodendron golden dragon just starting putting out vines, growing towards the window, and producing teeny leaves, about a tenth the size of his old leaves.
What’s the difference between LED grow lights and regular LED lights?
Grow lights produce a wavelength of light that is more like that which the sun produces. They emit electromagnetic radiation that simulates the sun and is better suited for photosynthesis.
There are different types of grow lights to help the different photoperiods of plants. A photoperiod is the amount of light a plant or animal is exposed to in 24 hours, and these photoperiods can be changed to promote maximum growth in the plant.
For example, a golden pothos may grow just fine for years and years in low light, because that simulates the start of its life, living beneath the canopy of the rainforest.
If you can’t be bothered to click, here’s a crap photo of a magnificent plant:
By increasing the amount of light you give a plant at different stages of its growth, you can potentially coax it into its mature form.
(If you’re confused by this, think of a Monstera deliciosa – their first few leaves are just boring leaves, then we may get the odd split, and then the odd hole, and then the mature split-and-holes look we all love so much. It’s not just monstera that have dramatically different juvenile and mature forms.
I’m afraid adding a couple of grow lights won’t produce golden pothos like that (seriously, who needs a variegated monstera??), but by doing research into the amount of light required to grow a plant to its full potential, you can really impact the way it grows.
Let’s be honest, there ain’t much information on grow lights and house plants and how to hack one to make the other reveal it’s true form.
All the research done on grow lights is pretty much marijuana-centric, but I’m sure someone somewhere is working out how to get a monstera to grow fenestrations under grow lights.
Can I use any bulb to grow plants then?
Ugh, it really depends on the plant and where the light is.
As a general rule of thumb, artificial ‘normal’ lights are best used to keep older low light tolerant species alive. You’re unlikely to see any real growth, and any growth that does occur is likely to be a bit weedy.
Normal lights don’t replace grow lights, but there are a few situations where a normal light is a nice addition:
- Adding a couple of extra hours of light in winter – if your plants are only getting a few hours of light in winter, then a lamp may give them a little boost.
- When you have a plant that you don’t really want to grow much more – some plants grow big and unruly, and you may have it to the size you want, but you want it to be a feature. Lighting it up with a lamp could give it enough light to tick over, but not grow much more. Keep an eye on it though, just in case it starts to suffer.
- An artificially lit office space – Keep lower light plants here, especially if windows are far away. I’d advise sticking to low light-tolerant plants, but a desk lamp may stimulate new growth. Here’s a post on plants best suited to being kept in an office.
Benefits of using LED lights
- Readily available, er, everywhere
- They produce light that can cause growth in plants
- They’re cheap to run and last a long time
- They’re cooler than incandescent bulbs, so are less likely to burn your plants
Disadvantages of using LED lights
- In order to have any real impact on your plants, they need to be super close
- They don’t simulate the sun to the same degree as grow lights, so they won’t produce the same results.
- Basically, don’t buy a regular light as a grow light. They ain’t the same.
Do I definitely need artificial lights to grow healthy house plants?
Absolutely not, and if you’re only a beginner, you have a bright house, or you’re just not sure you need them, don’t bother investing in grow lights.
When should I invest in grow lights for my plants?
It depends. I got a set of grow lights because U had the perfect spot for plants but it wasn’t *quite* bright enough. I was in the market for a lamp for that corner anyway, so why not a grow light?
I made sure the light I selected was energy-efficient and well-reviewed, and I’m happy with it.
Whilst I think my grow light was instrumental in keeping my plants healthy over winter, I wouldn’t say I’ve noticed an increased growth rate, but I would say that the growth is healthier than pre-grow lights.
If you’re still on the fence about grow lights, I’d suggest you probably don’t need one. If you do need one, but you’d prefer one of the more traditional ‘flat’ growth lights, watch this video from Betsy Begonia. She was on a mission to buy cheap grow lights and ended up recommending aquarium lights.
Which, by the way, I’m totally going to buy, and will update this video with the results in due course.