What is indirect light? And why do plants need it? We asked an expert to explain

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Lauren Geall
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Want to ensure your plants are getting the correct amount of light, but not sure where to start? Check out this guide to the ins and outs of indirect light to get started.

Whether you’re the proud owner of one or 100 plants, you’ll know keeping your leafy friends happy isn’t always as simple as giving them a water when their soil has dried out.

From ensuring they have enough space to grow (and repotting them if they don’t) to avoiding overwatering and causing root rot, there are plenty of different things to consider when it comes to taking care of your plants – including, of course, whether or not they’re getting enough light.

As light is one of the main components in photosynthesis (the process by which plants produce food to help them survive and grow), ensuring your plants get enough is incredibly important.  

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However, while you might assume that means you need to stick your plants in the sunniest spot possible, that’s not always the case. For most plants, being exposed to direct sunlight can actually damage their leaves, causing them to burn and turn brown or fade in colour.

Instead, most plant care guides will tell you that indirect light is preferable – but what does ‘indirect light’ actually mean, and how can you ensure that your plants get enough of it? With this in mind, we asked Charlotte Hosking, plant doctor at Pointless Plants, to answer some of our questions about indirect light and its role in plant care. Here’s what she had to say. 

What is indirect light?

While indirect light may sound like the opposite of direct light, it doesn’t constitute a shadowy spot.

“Indirect light basically means a well-lit room where your plants won’t get any direct sunlight,” Hosking explains. “This is when you place your plants in a room where the sun will not shine directly onto your plants’ foliage.”

In this way, indirect light is that sweet spot between full light and shadow – a spot that is well lit but is never hit directly by the sun’s rays.

Sun that passes through a shade or thin curtain before hitting your plant also counts as indirect light. 

A collection of three houseplants
Indirect light is a spot which is well lit but not hit directly by the sun's rays.

Which areas of the home get indirect light?

Although every room in your home will likely get some form of indirect light, finding the perfect spot typically depends on how many windows you have. 

However, there are some general rules you can follow.

“East and west-facing windows are usually ideal for most tropical houseplants, as they provide good lighting throughout the day but it’s not as intense as a south-facing window, which has more direct sunlight,” Hosking explains.

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Which plants thrive in indirect light?

According to Hosking, it’s better to ask which plants don’t thrive in indirect light.

“Pretty much every indoor plant prefers indirect sunlight,” she explains. 

“That’s except a few like the croton or bird of paradise that can stand direct sunlight.” 

A collection of plants on a shelf
Most plants prefer indirect light.

How can you tell when a plant is getting too much/too little light?

If you’re worried about whether your plants are getting too much or too little light, Hosking recommends keeping an eye out for these tell-tale signs.

“If a plant is getting too much light, the leaves will burn and turn brown (in plants such as a fern) or the variegation of your plant will fade,” she says.

“If it’s getting too little, the leaves will turn paper-thin, they might fall off and slowly lose their colour.” 

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.