This is the final article in our four-part series about indoor plant lighting. You can also read the first, second, and third articles.
You may see two other details provided in lamp specifications aside from the terms introduced in my last installment. They are not critical factors but can influence your satisfaction with how the lights look by themselves, and how plants, decorative pots, and other objects look underneath them.
The appearance of plants under the lights is not only important for aesthetics, like seeing the true colors of blooms, but also for detecting leaf discoloration, which can be a key symptom of malnutrition, light stress, or pest or disease damage.
Color Rendering Index (CRI)
While this doesn’t affect actual light intensity, it does impact our perception of how colors will look under a light and is a matter of personal preference.
On a scale of 0 to 100, the higher the CRI value a lamp has, the more accurate the colors will look compared to viewing in natural light. At the low end of the scale, colors are lackluster (desaturated) and less distinguishable from each other. Since incandescent, fluorescent, and LED lights all produce light by different means, they have different CRI ranges, though improvements in technology are closing this gap. Ideal ratings are in the 80s and above, with the 90s considered “high CRI.”
This is the third in our four-part series of articles about indoor lighting for plants. You can also read the first, second, and fourth articles.
Artificial light sources come in several forms, all relatively easy to acquire. Costs can vary wildly, and some are more electrically efficient than others. The variety of available options allows you to customize setups to your needs and the preferences of your plants. Before you dive into an overwhelming list of web search results, here are traits of the basic categories:
Light-Emitting Diode (LED)
best energy-efficiency in terms of light produced per watt consumed (especially if the light has the ideal spectrum)
coolest to the touch except for high-powered units, which usually have small built-in cooling fans
can be expensive for high-quality fixtures, though costs are decreasing
light output does not dim significantly over time, though diodes do have a finite lifespan
reach full brightness immediately or very quickly when turned on
diodes can either be exposed or under a frosted or textured cover to help diffuse the light
diodes are directional, meaning they don’t emit light in every direction the way a fluorescent tube does, so reflectors aren’t usually needed
more even light output from one edge of the fixture to the other
can be round like a spotlight (with a cluster of diodes) or straight strips (or strips inside a tube) with one or more rows of diodes
some replacement “tubes” can be used in place of fluorescent tubes in a fluorescent fixture, but you must check with the fixture’s manufacturer for compatibility as mixing components is a matter of electrical safety
This is the second article in our four-part series about indoor plant lighting. You can also read the first, third, and fourth articles.
Typically, insufficient lighting is the limiting factor for indoor plant growth and flowering, plus the reason for spindly seedlings. Most light fixtures in our homes and offices – especially those still using incandescent bulbs or those with energy-saving bulbs that mimic incandescents – don’t give off enough energy for plants to survive or thrive on long-term. In addition, windows block a surprising amount of sunlight intensity compared with the same spot just outside the glass. Insect screening outside a window reduces intensity even more.
Artificial lighting can either supplement natural light or be the sole light source for plants. Plants tolerate levels of light outside of their preferred range, but sensitivities vary from species to species. Over time, the consequences of inappropriate light levels may impact a plant’s health and alter its appearance, even if it isn’t immediately noticeable.
The importance of light to plants
For plants, light is food. We think of fertilizer as plant “food,” but in reality, it is more akin to a multivitamin than it is a meal – it supports how they use their food (carbohydrates from photosynthesis) and helps build tissues, pigments, hormones, defensive chemicals, and so forth – but it’s not providing the calories they need to survive and grow. They certainly can “fast,” so to speak, such as spending a few days in a box in transit or remaining semi-dormant in winter, but prolonged light deprivation from insufficient lighting will have negative impacts on plant health akin to slow starvation.
Plants may lack eyes, but they can still “see” light by detecting its colors, intensity, and duration. Coupled with temperature or precipitation, it can tell them what season it is for the purposes of growth and reproduction (flowering). Weather can fluctuate from year to year, but the patterns of daylength and general light intensity remain the same and are the most reliable environmental cues for the plant.
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.
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.
There seem to be new lighting choices for indoor plant growing every year. If you’ve been starting annual flower and vegetable plants indoors you probably learned early on that natural light entering through windows is hardly ever adequate. Some type of supplemental light is essential to produce healthy transplants. But what types of bulbs and fixtures work best? And how much money do I really want to spend on something I’ll use for 8-12 weeks each year?
Many gardeners use 2 ft. or 4 ft. long fluorescent tubes in a fixture (a.k.a “shop light”). The T number is the tube diameter in 1/8 inch units. The traditional T12 tube (1 ½ in. dia.) has been largely replaced by slimmer T8 (1-inch dia.) and T5 tubes (5/8 inch dia.). All fluorescent tubes give off a small amount of heat– rarely a problem, even when foliage grows into them. Heat from the ballast in the fixture can help hasten germination and plant growth, especially when your set-up is covered with plastic.
LED grow lights
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) give off very little heat, use less energy than fluorescent tubes, and last about twice as long. They are also mercury-free and made from plastic so won’t shatter like glass. LEDs appear to be the wave of the future for indoor lighting. Horticulturists and lighting engineers are working worldwide to customize wavelength combinations for specific plant production goals in commercial greenhouses and indoor vertical farms. Continue reading →