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What is the difference between direct, indirect, and low-light sunlight for plants?

You might have read plant care guides before to figure out how you can best take care of your plant. You might have looked at the type of light is best for your plant. In these plant care guides, you'll often see terms like "direct sunlight", "indirect sunlight", and "low-light". But what do these terms really mean?

When you know what the different levels of exposure mean, you can help your plant to stay in the level that it prefers. However, it also helps you when you want to adjust the level of sunlight exposure, because your plant might prefer a bit more or a bit less sunlight. It makes teaching others about which level of sunlight exposure helped for you a lot easier.

These are the exposure levels we're going to look at:

  1. Direct sunlight levels
  2. Indirect sunlight levels
  3. Low-light sunlight levels
  4. Conclusion

Let's learn more about the different levels of sunlight exposure and which plants generally do well in which level!

Direct sunlight levels

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Aloe vera in direct sunlight

Direct sunlight, like the term suggests, means that the sunlight touches the leaves of the plants directly, without something being in the way. This level of sunlight is very bright and you'll generally find this type of light in windows that face west or south, if you live in the northern hemisphere. If you live in the southern hemisphere, you'll find this light in west and north-facing windows. These windows get several hours of bright sunlight during the day, especially in the summer.

There are a few plants that do really well in direct sunlight, like succulents, cacti, sansevierias, and tropical trees like crotons. This direct sunlight is too harsh for most tropical houseplants, because these plants often grow on the ground or on tree trunks. The sunlight that reaches the ground or tree trunks is indirect sunlight, because it goes through leaves and is almost never direct sunlight.

This brings us to indirect sunlight!

Indirect sunlight levels

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Ficus in indirect sunlight

Let's move a little away from the window, in the space where you no longer get direct sunlight. This space is still very bright, but the sun rays don't directly touch your plant anymore. This type of sunlight exposure is called indirect sunlight. You get indirect sunlight if you've got a bright spot, the sunlight is blocked, but the space is still quite bright. The sunlight could be blocked by a thin curtain or another plant. It could also just be blocked, because the sunlight doesn't come far enough into the room to directly shine on your plant.

You can find this type of light in a few different spots, like in a room with a thin curtain that has west and south-facing windows, but also in front of windows that never get any direct sunlight. A spot right in front of the window of a north and east facing window, don't get any (strong) direct sunlight, so you can place any "indirect sunlight" plants by these windows without any issues.

This type of sunlight is perfect for most of the plants you can buy, this includes: Monsteras, Alocasias, Palms, Philodendrons, Pothos, etc. All of these plants need a bright space to grow, but get sunburns on their leaves when they're exposed to direct sunlight. We can take a few more steps back into the room to get in the low-light sunlight exposure zone.

Low-light sunlight levels

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Peace Lily in shade

Now that we're even further away from a window, we've found ourselves in the low-light zone. Low-light is a spot in your house where the sun can't reach and they're often a little "shadowy". These spots in your house is where to tend to turn on a light to be able to find something.

You might be wondering whether you can actually grow plants in these dark places, because surely all plants need some sunlight exposure. But you can actually grow a few nice plants in these darker places of your house. These plants include: Peace Lilies, ZZ plants, English Ivy's, Sansevierias, and several more. You might have notice that I said Sansevierias again. These plants are plants that can quite literally grow anywhere. They're incredibly tough. These plants thrive in direct sunlight, but tolerate low-light spots. It just won't grow any bigger.


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In this plant care guide, we've learned the difference between 3 common sunlight exposure levels: direct, indirect, and low-light. It's useful to know what each of these levels means, because this helps you when you read plant care guides online. Most plant care guides mention these types of sunlight exposure, so now you know where you should put your plants.

Thank you for reading this post! I hope it helps you to keep your plants healthy and beautiful! If you're looking for more guides on specific plants, you can always request a plant guide to get a guide for the plant you have trouble with.

Posted on: Jul 31, 2022 Last updated on: Jan 31, 2023

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Frequently asked questions

What is direct sunlight for plants?
Direct sunlight is when the sun's rays shine directly through a window onto a houseplant. This kind of light is very bright and can cause dehydration if the plant is not taken care of properly.
What is indirect sunlight for plants?
Indirect sunlight is when the sun's rays are filtered by curtains, blinds, an awning, or even trees outside the window before they reach the houseplant. This kind of light is less intense than direct light and it's better for most houseplants to get this kind of light instead of direct sunlight.
What is low-light for a plant?
Low light means that there isn't much natural sunlight coming in through the window at all. Most plants don't need as much light in this situation and can still thrive with just a few hours of indirect or even artificial light each day.
How do I know what type of sunlight my houseplant needs?
The best way to figure out what type of sunlight your houseplant needs is to look up its specific species online. Some plants need more direct or indirect sunlight while others may be able to survive with low levels of either one.
Is it bad for my houseplant if I give it too much direct or indirect sunlight?
Yes, it can be bad for your houseplant if you give it too much direct or indirect sunlight. It can cause dehydration which can damage the plant's leaves could even kill it over time. It's important to make sure your plant gets enough but not too much natural light each day.
Can I give my houseplant artificial light instead?
Yes, you can give your houseplant artificial light instead if you don't have access to actual sunlight through a window. Artificial lights come in different intensities so make sure you choose one that mimics natural lighting as closely as possible for your particular plant species!
What happens if my houseplant doesn't get enough direct or indirect sunlight?
If your houseplant doesn't get enough direct or indirect sunlight then its growth will be stunted. Plants need energy from natural lighting sources in order to grow properly and stay healthy. Make sure you provide enough but not too much light for your plant so it can thrive!

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