Let’s talk about light: a HPH guide to understanding houseplants, lighting + orientation
I’ve been thinking a lot about light over the last few weeks — not just with the change in the seasons (…how is it Autumn?!), but also from being in a different, new place. I’ve been getting acquainted with how the light moves around the space —including letting out audible gasps at times when the low evening sun has made the walls glow in a bright orange hue!
Anyway, as a topic in general, understanding light intensity + orientation is a pivotal aspect of not only plant care, but a key aspect of interiors, design + architecture too. Though in many plant books, much advice seems to fixate on room-specific ideas ‘plants for your bedroom etc.’ with little consideration towards the way your room might be positioned. This certainly seems to cause confusion + I feel that it’s much more useful to let the light levels determine where you place your plants + not the generic room type.
So for today’s post, I’m going to delve into how the different light exposures — North, East, South + West — impact our interior spaces + what exactly this means for our houseplants. I’ll save it under the ‘a HPH guide to…’ tab on the houseplanthouse homepage so that it’ll be at your fingertips to refer back to. This post is also for you if you are a bit unsure about what ‘bright, indirect light’ means in practice — especially if you are new to houseplants or if you are tentatively considering the areas that might be suitable in your home for a viridescent, leafy display. It’s worth noting that I’m in the Northern hemisphere for reference. I hope this post will help you feel more confident in choosing how to position your indoor plants + other aspects to consider such as window treatments or obstructions outside.
1. North light
If you are an art lover, you might know that in the Northern hemisphere, North-facing studios are the most desirable for painters due to the way that these spaces handle daylight. Northern light leans towards a cool tone + is more stable (it’s also often called reflected light) in that it doesn’t fluctuate towards a warmer appearance throughout the day as the sun moves around. For context, I have an Art School background so the question of light has been important to me for a long time — either through my painting or photographic practice, I am aware that I observe light in a more intense way than is perhaps usual!
In terms of houseplants + North-facing rooms, these orientations are understood as low-moderate indirect light, so the first thing you’ll want to do is position plants in these spaces as close to the windows as you can. The intensity of light is lacking in these areas + as a weaker, indirect type of light, Northern exposures can be tricky to grow certain plants. I’d reserve these locations as the place for low light tolerant plants — I’ve put together an in-depth blogpost on that here if you are looking for some planting inspiration.
KEY ATTRIBUTES OF NORTH LIGHT:
- A softer, indirect light
- Particularly weak in intensity during the winter months
- Best for low-light tolerant houseplants
2. East light
East-facing locations are brighter than Northern rooms as they get the lovely light from the morning sun as it rises + are often a good choice for bedrooms if you are designing a space — they are generally considered ‘medium bright, indirect light’. For plants, these spaces are quite adaptable + are great for your trailing displays or leafy gang because by the middle of the day, the sun will be higher in the sky + moving away from this area. This means that in eastern exposures, I can grow things well in closer proximity to the window because the light intensity isn’t strong enough to burn or crisp the foliage. In the cottage, the windows were South-East facing which made them a key area of the space to keep my plants (other areas were quite dark).
KEY ATTRIBUTES OF EAST LIGHT:
- An adaptable light that’s best in the morning
- Suits easy going plants like Epipremnum (pothos) or Ferns but might not be bright enough for sun-loving varieties
- Growth can be slower unless plants are closer to windows
3. South light
South facing windows are very desirable in the houseplant world if you enjoy growing things like cacti or succulents, as these bright positions with direct light are the perfect spot that can really make your home feel that little bit more tropical. An old work colleague had a beautiful large aloe plant on her south facing work windowsill for many years (long-time readers might remember photos of it) that became a stand out feature of the whole office!
Saying that, it’s important to understand the need to protect plants during the summer months from a suntan, or potential damage, as this orientation is the most intense light of all. This is what you will know as ‘bright, indirect light to full sun’ + isn’t suitable for all houseplants, especially those with thinner foliage. Whilst growth in these locations can be considerable when light levels + temperatures are good, you’ll need to be mindful of the pitfalls of under watering and/or inadequate care + attention that can sometimes give rise to pest issues.
Coupled with large glass panes which can also intensify the sun’s heat, you’ll want to be checking plants that are in these positions + perhaps moving them further from the window during really sunny, hot periods. In my previous place, I used a sheer net to filter the light in my brightest windows which allowed me to keep plants around 0.5metres away with no problems. I’ll talk more about window treatments later in the post.
KEY ATTRIBUTES OF SOUTH LIGHT:
- The brightest, most intense aspect of daylight
- Great for cacti + succulents
- Plants might need shading in Summer months
4. West light
Lastly, West light. Western exposures are my absolute favourite + are perhaps the ideal lighting situation for most houseplants — it’s the typical, coveted ‘bright, indirect light’. I’ll admit that the prospect of good West-facing windows have always been quite a deciding factor when it has come to moving house... you know you are a plant lover in a big way if one of the first things you consider is the house orientation + window positions! Longer-time blog readers might remember that my old apartment had a West-facing living space which is where my big old Monstera truly thrived. In the morning, it’s quite a gentle indirect light but from the latter half of afternoon + into the evening, it really can have a warmth + brightness that feels quite like a dialled-down South light location. As the sun is setting, there will be a period of direct light in the late afternoon/evening during the Summer months, but (importantly) this will be weaker than the direct light in a Southern location that appears at midday — when the sun is high in the sky + the most intense. In the high summer, you might have to move windowsill plants back a bit if you are in a very bright location with little blocking the light outside.
KEY ATTRIBUTES OF WEST LIGHT:
- Overall the most favourable light for most houseplants
- Plants might need a degree of protection in the Summer if in an exposed location
- This is your typical ‘bright indirect light’ setting, with a degree of direct sun later in the day which is less intense than you would find in a South-facing location
5. Obstructions + window treatments
Where your house is situated actually plays quite an important part in the quality or type of light that you receive — whatever the orientation. That’s why in my plant care guides I always like to explain what I mean in relation to my specific environment, which can be used as a guide for you to compare with your own space.
In my west facing living room in my old second floor apartment that I mentioned above, I really got to understand this point about the quality + intensity of light acutely because there was a huge old tree outside the window, which during Spring + Summer was covered in leaves. This meant that in the morning, the room was quite dark, but as the late afternoon light came around, the sun was lower in the sky + it lit up the room in the most beautiful way. In some ways, it was in part due to how much darker the space felt in the morning, due to the obstruction of the tree, that it looked extra illuminated + special in the evening light. And I know for sure that my houseplants loved it in this lighting situation for 5 years. It’s also worth noting that windows of course can be pretty different in size + shape + also the type of glazing can have an impact too. If you live in a built up area, with other buildings or trees close by, this will diffuse things somewhat + reduce the overall intensity + ultimately impact the way that light will feel in your home.
A note on window treatments here — most people have some kind of curtains, whether that be opaque traditional curtains you draw at night, to sheer secondary curtains that are becoming increasingly popular (ikea is great for these in my experience), plus a whole variety of blinds or shutters too. Plantation style shutters seem to be another popular choice at the moment, but be aware that they will reduce + soften the overall light levels in your room, so are best reserved for a brighter space. These are key elements that directly affect just how the light enters your interior + are aspects to consider if you keep houseplants.
As I’ve touched upon already, seasonal shifts are pivotal times for plant lovers because it can often mean we need to make some adjustments in terms of plant care + plant positioning too.
Regardless of the orientation of the rooms in which you grow your plants, rotating them regularly will really help to keep growth balanced, particularly in the winter months where the weaker light can cause most plants to lean into the light a little. Plants like Pilea really respond well to weekly rotations to keep the main trunk upright + the same goes for Ficus + Monstera plants too. If you are trying to help a leaning plant to stand up tall, adding a support can help a great deal. Most importantly, listen to your plants — it’s often a balance between moving them closer to a window or light source, but also being aware of how cold draughts from windowsills + the hot air blast of radiators can negatively affect your houseplants.
I’ll link some related posts here:
7. Moving shock
As tempted as you might be to now move around some of your houseplants + re-think some plant positioning in your home, hang on! Moving shock is an aspect of plant care that is not always acknowledged + can lead to new plant enthusiasts feeling deflated if their newly bought houseplants don’t immediately flourish as they are placed in their new homes.
The thing is, moving your plants in any way — whether that’s from house to house, or from room to room, but especially from the store or nursery to an entirely new location, will cause the plant an element of shock. As I’ve said in previous blogposts, I always quarantine any new plants I’m bringing into my space for a few weeks before introducing to my other houseplants until I can be sure there are no pests present + I can give my plant a proper inspection. This separate space is also where I acclimatise said plants to settle them into their new environment.
The best thing you can do with your new plant purchases for a few weeks is to keep your plant out of direct light + steer clear of heavy watering or repotting at this time. If it’s not a new plant you are looking to move, but one that you feel is in a less-than-ideal location, then a slow but steady approach is preferable. This will help to acclimatise the plant to different conditions gradually over a number of weeks, especially if you are planning on moving it from a darker location to a brighter spot.
If you still have the urge to move things around, or you are thinking about testing out a new plant styling display, then it’s always a good idea to consider the whole process before you start repotting, or relocating things as a planting experiment! I like to sketch out a display either on paper or by taking a photo + drawing over it on a photo editing app. First consider the planters you are planning to use if you are making any changes, or cache pot (pot covers) if you are just wanting to change up the aesthetic a little. Most importantly, check that the plants will actually fit in the cover pot sizes you are planning on using (a common mistake) + place the planters in their proposed position. Even without the plants in the pots, you’ll be able to get an idea of how the overall design will look + to ensure there is adequate space. For example, I often find that placing plants on bookshelves can take up more space than you think + sometimes, hanging plants too high can prevent the top of the planter from receiving ample light.
It’s worth noting of course that the majority of houses will not have been built to perfectly align with compass points. So a room that might be South-East facing — as was my living space in the cottage — will mean that the actual way the light behaves will be a blend of the characteristics of these two orientations. To maximise the way that light enters your home, I always say that a few carefully placed mirrors adjacent to windows can really help bounce the available light around + it’s something I’ve done in every place I’ve lived! In terms of supplemental lighting in lower-lit environments, I’ve got a post that I’ll link here in case you are interested. I’ll also link my Getting your houseplants ready for Autumn post that might be helpful at this time of year if you are noticing a seasonal shift occurring.
I hope that you have found this post helpful in understanding the concept of light in a little more depth + I’ll put together a follow up post soon with the plants I’ve found that work well in particular areas. Please feel free to share with someone who might enjoy this blogpost, or save to refer back to:
Published at Sun, 26 Sep 2021 10:58:23 -0700