An introduction to gardening under lights

This is the first article in a four-part series about the ins and outs of gardening under lights, both for newcomers curious about a different way to grow plants and for more experienced growers who want to build on their understanding of lighting options. Read on for the second, third, and fourth parts of the series.

plants growing under an LED light indoors
A variety of plants growing under an LED light indoors. Photo: Miri Talabac

Why use lights for plants?

It’s sensible to think, “why provide artificial light for indoor plants? Isn’t natural window light enough?” After all, natural light is certainly what the plants get when growing outside. If you’re fortunate and have sun-soaked windows in your home, you may have little need for artificial lighting. Anyone who has insufficient window light or who otherwise can’t utilize their windows for growing plants, though, would benefit from giving their plants brighter conditions.

We’ll address this in more detail in upcoming posts, but light levels play a significant role in keeping plants healthy, vigorous, and looking their best. Plant lights give you more control over this aspect of plant care.

Who benefits from using plant lights?

Anyone who doesn’t have ideal natural-light conditions for their plants would benefit from using plant lights (also called “grow lights”). You don’t have to be a tropical plant aficionado to make use of them, and anyone with an available power outlet can try it. Setups can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. Seed-starting enthusiasts can produce more robust seedlings, and anyone trying to overwinter a lemon tree, some herbs, an aloe, or patio tropicals could have more vigorous plants if their winter slog could be brightened with some extra light.

What can I grow?

Just about anything that fits under the light, especially among plants that don’t require very bright light to thrive. Aside from seed-starting, cultivating tropical plants year-round is a common use. The wandering habits of a climbing species might be challenging to wrangle into a limited area, but plenty of houseplants are compact enough to sit under a fixture. Some of the stronger lights are bright enough to satisfy high-light lovers like succulents, bromeliads, and possibly even herbs, but many houseplants fall into the “bright, indirect” crowd and their needs are pretty easy to accommodate. Tropical species native to the forest floor, where they only receive drifting patches of dappled sun, also tend to be well-suited to growing under artificial light.

How I started using plant lights

My gardening under lights journey began many years ago as the solution to two primary goals: keeping plants safe from our pet cats (and vice versa), and providing more light than any of the available windows received. I was fortunate in having a hand-me-down plant stand ready to use, having been retired from its prior function of cultivating African violets. At the time, that home’s basement was the cat-free zone, and while it had barely any natural light, with artificial lighting, I could grow just about anything that would fit on its shelves.

My subsequent descent into houseplant madness started gradually enough that it’s hard to recall what plants were my first charges. I do know an orchid or two made early appearances, and as with many novices, ferns, begonias, the odd air plant (Tillandsia), and various other easy-care species comprised the collection.

plants under lights in a terrarium
Photo: Miri Talabac

The rest, as they say, is history – I became hooked on this enjoyable hobby and haven’t looked back. Nowadays, my houseplant interests have settled on an eclectic and ever-growing mix of terrarium-suitable and miniature species, including aroids (Philodendron and kin), Begonias, gesneriads (African Violet relatives), orchids, and Tillandsia. I also dabble in succulents, because apparently I need more self-control. The sheer number of species and varieties I grow in total is probably in the realm of ridiculous to most people, but in either case, I’d never have enough windows for them all unless I got myself the ultimate “window,” a greenhouse. Alas, that’s not in my foreseeable future, so my “plant room” with artificial lighting will have to suffice.

Where to begin?

Whether you want to just dip your toe in the water with a simple spotlight for a lone plant or are eager to dive into this world and want to set up a shelved light stand or large terrarium, there’s a lot to learn about how light characteristics affect plants and which of today’s lighting options makes the most sense for your needs and budget. In upcoming posts. I’ll introduce the types of lamps available, how to measure light levels, and give tips on how you can set up a growing area.

For now, consider what you’d like to grow indoors (either year-round or just for the winter) and learn what light levels it prefers; the basic tiers of “bright,” “moderate,” or “low” will suffice. Do you have an ideal location for a light setup? Criteria include being out-of-the-way yet readily accessible (for plant watering and grooming), within easy reach of a power source, and in a spot where its brightness before sunrise or after sunset won’t disturb you.

Gardening under lights, just as with outdoor gardening, is a fun and potentially addictive endeavor. You can easily go down the rabbit hole of analyzing technical specs, debating nuances of fixture performance and plant benefits, and be tempted by bells and whistles you probably won’t need. The goal of this series is to give you the framework of understanding lighting concepts so you can build on that as you feel comfortable.

Coming up: What are your plants telling you? In next month’s installment, we’ll discuss how light levels impact plants and what abilities and limits they have on adapting to changes in lighting.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Read additional posts by Miri.

7 thoughts on “An introduction to gardening under lights

  1. Debbie November 30, 2021 / 9:25 am

    So nice to read about your experience.

  2. Debra Ricigliano November 30, 2021 / 9:25 am

    So nice to read about your lighting experience.

  3. George Lambert January 14, 2022 / 10:20 am

    Your comments, and apparently experience, went straight to grow lights, whereas I have been under the impression that regular fluorescent lights are adequate for foliage plants and seedlings, with grow lights only necessary for flowering plants. I hope you will cover this issue, as well as the different spectrums in alternatives and which are relevant for various plants.

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