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How to Choose a Grow Light

Make sure your plants get the light they need to thrive

Bamboo LED Grow Light Garden
Bamboo LED Grow Light Gardens have high-output LEDs that provide optimal light for seedlings and houseplants, as well as herbs and other edibles.

With so many types of grow lights and systems available, it can be overwhelming to figure out which one will best suit your needs. Here's a rundown of some basics.

Grow Light Basics

All green plants require light to perform photosythesis, during which special cells convert the energy contained in the light into sugars. In the process, plants give off oxygen. Ahhhh. No wonder it's so relaxing to spend time in a plant-filled room.

Plants vary widely in how much light they need to thrive. Low-light houseplants, such as dracaenas, will generally do fine in a north-facing window. Fruiting edibles, such as tomatoes, need much brighter light — more than even a south-facing window can supply, especially in winter.

As with any specialty, it's helpful to understand the relevant terminology.

Plants vary widely in how much light they need to thrive.
Light fixture with full-spectrum LED lights
Specially designed light stands, such as this SunLite® Garden, make it easy to provide the intensity of light that plants require.

Measuring Light

The term lumens describes how bright a light is — to the human eye, that is. (Plants and people "see" light differently.) Generally, the higher the lumen rating, the brighter the light.

Intensity describes the amount of light that reaches a surface at given distance from the light source. A super-bright bulb that's 12" from a surface might, for example, provide the same light intensity as a dimmer bulb that's 2" from the surface. When you're growing under lights, you can control light intensity in two ways: by the brightness of the bulb and by how close the bulb is to the plant's leaves.

Duration describes the number of hours of light a plant receives in a 24-hour period. Outdoors, light duration varies with the locale and the season. The farther away you get from the equator, for example, the "shorter" the winter days (the few hours of daylight). Indoors, we control light duration by turning lights on and off or, more readily, with a programmable timer. A rule of thumb is to leave grow lights turned on for about 16 hours per day, giving plants eight hours of "rest."

Most plants benefit by having some time with the lights turned off so they can "rest"; during this time they use some of the energy they captured during the day to fuel growth. Certain plants require specific periods of daily darkness to initiate flower buds and trigger other growth patterns.

Sunlight contains all the colors in the spectrum. Full-spectrum grow lights replicate the natural solar spectrum.

Color describes the visual appearence of light. Confusingly, it's described as "color temperature" though it has nothing to do with how hot or cold a bulb gets. Most grow lights provide a balance of cool (blue end of the spectrum) and warm (red end of the spectrum) light. (Although grow lights provide light in colors along the full spectrum, plants use little of the light from the green/yellow part of the spectrum.)

Color is often described using the term Kelvins. A grow light with a 5000 Kelvin rating will appear bluish. One with a 2500 Kelvin rating will appear reddish. In genereral, lights that skew toward the blue end are best for vegetative growth, while those that skew toward red end are good for stimulating plants to produce flowers and fruit.

Stack-n-Grow Light Garden
The modular LED Stack-n-Grow System lets you start with the lights you need, and add more units as you need them.

Seedlings in particular require lots of bright light, and when they don't receive enough of it they get weak and leggy. In most cases, even the sunniest windowsill will not provide the intensity of light they need. A special grow light stand makes it simple to give seedlings the light they need. As your seedlings grow, you can raise the light fixture about once a week to keep the lights a few inches above the foliage.

LED, Fluorescent or Incandescent?

LED grow lights are especially good because they give off very little heat. They also use half the electricity, last 5x longer than fluorescent bulbs, are mercury-free, and won't shatter like glass. Regular incandescent bulbs are not used for indoor growing because they give off too much heat and can burn tender foliage.

Light Fluorescent LED High Output LED
Best for:
Leafy Houseplants
Dwarf Citrus    
Banana Plant    
Brightness ✔ ✔
Energy Efficiency ✔ ✔ ✔ ✔
Mercury-Free Bulbs  
Shatter-Proof Bulbs  
Optimized Spectrum  
Light Height adjustable adjustable none needed

Learn how to find a grow light that fits your situation. Presented by Laura from Garden Answer

To learn more about seedstarting, including tips for planning and timing, fertilizing, temperature and humidity, thinning and hardening off, read How to Start Seeds.

Last updated: 10/28/19

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