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What Is the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Sunlight?

Houseplant lovers will sternly tell you that if you want to keep your adorable succulents and curling vines of Devil’s Ivy alive and well, you must master the difference between direct and indirect sunlight.  Too much direct light could burn a plant’s tender leaves to a crisp, but no indirect light at all starves a houseplant of much needed light energy to photosynthesize.

Ultimately, you can break down natural light by these three factors:

  • Direction: which cardinal direction does the window face?
  • Obstacles: is light filtering in through a curtain or unblocked?
  • Space: how far back is the spot in question from the light source?

Window Efficiency

Direct Sunlight

As the term implies, direct sunlight is long sun exposure—bright light.  For keeping plants, this terminology typically translates into an instruction of which window to situate your new plant in front of so it can get the proper amount of exposure.  Direct sunlight is an uninterrupted path of light from the sun directly to the plant.  Direct sunlight, or bright light, means south or southwest-facing windows, and east or west-facing windows, up to 10’ away.

Direct sunlight is also very intense.  If your plants require it, you’ll still want to be cautious, placing them further away from these westward, eastward, or southward-facing windows, otherwise, their leaves could burn.  Alternatively, if moving your plants further back isn’t an option, then you can filter the direct sunlight with a thin window covering.  It’s still direct sunlight, only you’re controlling the intensity to protect your plants.

Indirect Sunlight

Indirect sunlight is a little trickier to initially understand, after all, how can sunlight be indirect?  In your home, certain windows are exposed to sunlight for extended periods of time, and other windows less so depending on which direction they face. Indrect sunlight is defined as light that passes through a medium, whether that’s a shade, a tree’s leaves, or reflecting off of something else before reaching a plant.

You’ll find the term “indirect sunlight” becomes ubiquitous when raising most houseplants.  This means that your plant needs to receive bright light to flourish without sunlight illuminating its foliage.

East-facing windows provide bright, indirect sunlight during the day and throughout the majority of the year.  For plant lovers needing indirect sunlight, an east-facing window is your best bet.  West-facing windows also provide indirect sunlight in the early morning and afternoon.  Western windows then receive about four to six hours of extreme direct sunlight, so if your plant that needs indirect light is sitting on a western sill, be sure to draw the curtain during hotter afternoons to protect it.

What about north-facing windows?  Although you’d think these windows to be perfect for indirect light, they don’t receive enough bright light to keep most plants happy.  The light level for northern windows may be too low, unless you’re able to place your plants as close as possible to the window to receive its maximum exposure.  Don’t worry; if you have northern windows that need plants to keep them company, there are plenty of low light level houseplants that can thrive in these spots.

Sunlight Through A Window

Low Light

Some houseplants call for low light.  There are three categories of light: bright light (direct sunlight), medium light (indirect sunlight), and low light.  Low light would fall into the indirect sunlight category, although dialed back so the plant would receive far less exposure.  Experts advise that if a plant calls for low light, the source should be minimum natural light or even artificial lighting.

As mentioned, north-facing windows are ideal for low light requirements.  These windows have extraordinarily low levels of sun exposure compared to east, west, and south-facing neighbors.  Low light can be found in south, west, or east-facing windows so long as surrounding buildings obscures the windows or nestled in a courtyard to help block the intensity of the sun.  Low light environments are also found in foyers and landings where there may be an absence of natural light but plenty of artificial fluorescent overhead lighting that’s left on the majority of the day.

What Type of Light Do I Have?

Sometimes it can be difficult to assess the natural light in your home.  Does that south-facing window actually get direct light?  You can find out by taking the 12 o’clock light test, a simple trick to analyze the natural light in any given area.

This quick test works when it’s noon and you’re standing in the spot that you’re trying to determine is bright light, medium light, or low light.  Perhaps this is the exact spot you’d like a plant to live.

Sunlight through double hung windows

Now, stand in this spot and check your shadow.  See if it’s one of the following:

  • Sharp & defined shadow: that’s bright light (direct light).
  • Weak shadow, but a silhouette is visible: that’s medium light (indirect light).
  • Faint shadow without definition: that’s low light (indirect light).

Be patient and be willing to experiment with lighting while growing and caring for houseplants.  It’s a trial-and-error process, but when you know the difference between direct and indirect sunlight, you’re already halfway there.

Trust a Professional to Install Your Windows

Feldco has high-quality vinyl windows in many shapes and sizes to perfectly fit your home. We also have professional and experienced window installers to make sure the job is done correctly.

At Feldco, we have replaced over 1.5 million windows with the help of our factory-trained installers. We have served over 400,000 happy customers because of our award-winning and energy-efficient windows.

Lastly, we provide homeowners with great local services and showrooms so they can customize their homes with a variety of window styles and colors.

Speak with a product specialist and get a free quote today.

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