Grow in the Dark: How to Choose and Care for Low-Light Houseplants

Grow in the Dark: How to Choose and Care for Low-Light Houseplants

by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf


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Grow in the Dark puts the spotlight on 50 of the best houseplants you can grow in your dim or dark apartment. Author Lisa Eldred-Steinkopf, known as the Houseplant Guru, shares the knowledge she’s gained tending to her own personal jungle of over 1,000 houseplants.

Having a south-facing window doesn’t always guarantee you the best light to grow plants—especially if your window faces an alley or a tree-lined street. What’s the point of growing an urban jungle if tall buildings are blocking all your sunshine? This compact guide, designed to look as good on your shelf as it is useful, will help you learn how to make the most of your light so you can reap the physical and emotional benefits of living with plants.

Detailed profiles include tips on watering your plants just right, properly potting them, and troubleshooting pests and diseases. You’ll also learn which plants are safe to keep around your pets.

Whether you live in a shady top-floor apartment or a dungeon-y garden level, this book will help you grow your plant collection to its healthiest for its Instagram debut.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780760364512
Publisher: Cool Springs Press
Publication date: 05/07/2019
Edition description: New
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 424,261
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 9.05(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Lisa Eldred Steinkopf is The Houseplant Guru, who features all things houseplants on her blog, She is the author of Houseplants and Grow in the Dark and has written for, Real Simple magazine, Michigan Gardener Magazine, the houseplant section of Allan Armitage’s Greatest Perennials and Annuals app, and Michigan Gardening Magazine, where she writes a monthly column. She worked for more than a decade at Steinkopf Nursery as the Annuals and Houseplants Manager, and has been interviewed online, in print, and on TV about houseplants. She harbors well over 1,000 houseplants in her home.

Read an Excerpt



Illumination is the key to growing any houseplant successfully. Light in any form, be it natural or electric, is the sustenance for your plants. The only time they "eat" is when light is falling on their leaves. When a plant takes in light, water, and carbon dioxide, it converts it to food for itself. This process takes place in the green, chlorophyll-filled cells of the plant and is called photosynthesis. The best part for you, me, and all life on earth is that the byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen. If it weren't for plants, life on earth as we know it would not exist.


Let's first talk about the light everyone has streaming into the windows of their homes: sunlight.

SOME HOMES RECEIVE more light than others — this depends on the style of home and the number of windows it has.

If light is the key to plant health, how do you know whether you have enough to sustain plant life? If there is enough light in your room to read a book, you have enough to sustain a low-light plant. You may have more light than you realize and can grow a large variety of plants. Initially, you need to determine the amount of light in your home and from which direction it originates. It is important to know whether your windows face east, west, north, or south. Most homes and large apartments have windows facing multiple exposures. If, however, you live in a small apartment, you may have windows that face only one direction.

If you aren't compass-savvy, it's easy to determine an east- or west-facing window based on whether you notice if the sun rises or sets in it, respectively. If you never notice any direct sun at all, you probably have a northern exposure. On the other hand, if the sun shines in your window all afternoon, your window faces south.

Skylights are considered a fifth exposure, as they allow extra light into a room to supplement the wall windows you already have. Lucky you if you have one of these! Let's discuss the five directional exposures and the plants they will sustain.


An east window is one of the best for plants. East windows receive soft, cool morning light. Because the sun is coming up over the horizon, it shines in at an angle and reaches quite far into the room. As the sun rises higher in the sky, the area of light in the room will become smaller. African violets, ferns, begonias, prayer plants, aglaonemas, and many other varieties will do well in this exposure. With an east window, the plants you place farther away from it should be those that prefer low light. The windowsill of an east window will sustain medium- and possibly even high-light plants.


A west window's light is almost the same as that from one that faces east, but the western sun exposes your plants to a higher level of heat. Highlight plants will do well — thrive, in fact — in the windowsill of a west-exposure window. Western light is also on an angle as the sun is setting, so both east and west exposures can support more plants farther into the room. If a plant likes a medium to low light, do not place it on the windowsill of a west window, as that may provide a bit too much light and heat for it. Plants that will thrive in western exposure include cacti and other succulents, air plants, snake plants, ficus, and many flowering plants. Because of the low angle of the sun late in the day, aglaonema, spathiphyllum, and other low-light plants can live 4 to 5 feet back from the window and do well.


South-facing windows receive the most light throughout the day — it is an intense light that cacti and most other succulents appreciate. In the summer months, the sun is high in the sky, and the sunlight shines directly down into the window, so it doesn't reach far into the room at all. If you hang a sheer curtain or place your plants a few feet back from a southern window, many lower-light plants will thrive in this exposure. If, on the other hand, a low-light plant is placed too close to a south-facing window without protection, it may burn and, if left there, die. The sun is lower in the sky in the winter, so at that time, the light from the sun comes in at an angle. The light from east and west exposures does not change as much in the winter as it does from the south. Low- to medium-light plants may actually do better in a south window in the winter months.


North windows never receive any direct sunlight. The plants they can support generally are only foliage plants, such as the cast-iron plant (aspidistra), philodendron varieties, the ZZ plant, and pothos. These plants naturally grow on the rainforest floor, where they live in the shade with only dappled light to sustain them. Flowering plants are usually not an option for northern exposures unless some sort of electric light is added to supplement the sunlight (see here). If you have a table lamp regularly turned on in the evening, the small amount of extra light may allow you to grow a higher-light plant than would normally grow in a north exposure, and you may even get an African violet or other flowering plant to bloom.

The Fifth Exposure

Skylights are considered a fifth exposure. They bring extra light into the room directly from above, moving across the room with the sun, and may allow you to grow a greater variety of plants. Be aware, though, that wherever the skylight shines, the light will be an intense light. Though it might not be on your plant for a long amount of time, it may burn lowlight plants.

Garden-Level Apartments

If you live in a garden-level apartment, you may receive less light than the apartments above you. All is not lost. If your windows are placed high in your wall, near the ceiling, hanging plants are a good choice. You can also hang a shelf below the window to act as a deep windowsill on which to place your plants, giving you the additional benefit of some extra privacy without having to shut the blinds during the day. Purchase a tree-form houseplant, such as a tall dracaena, whose leaves reach window height. If some amount of light is getting into your apartment, there should be a plant that will survive there. Adding some small grow lights to supplement your light would be helpful too.

Light Factors

You may be excited to discover that you have a southern-exposure window, yet the light coming in isn't as bright as you hoped and the highlight cactus that should be doing well is struggling. Have you noticed the large overhang extending over your window? How about the awnings that were put up to block the light from fading the carpeting or drapes? What about that enormous tree right outside the window? All these factors determine the amount of light that comes through a window. If you have a deciduous tree right outside — one that drops its leaves in the fall — you will, in fact, have more light in the winter months than you do in the summer. If it is an evergreen, like a Christmas tree, you will have shade the entire year. And what about that huge building next door, blocking all your sun? If it is painted a dark color, it will absorb light; if it's a light color, it will reflect some of the light into your windows. All these factors determine the amount of light coming into your room and the amount falling on your plants' leaves. Read about some creative ways to bring more light into your home shown here.


I love variegated plants, or plants with more than one color foliage. They may come in white and green, or green and yellow — or even, as in the case of a croton, red, yellow, green, and orange all on the same plant. The problem with these plants is that they need more light than monochromatic green plants. So, if you only have a modicum of light, steer clear of variegated plants at the garden center, even if you love them. Without enough light, the variegation will fade out of the leaves, and you will be left with a green plant anyway.


If you find your plants are leaning toward the window, it is probable that your plant is suffering from phototropism. That may sound like a disease, but it isn't. Sunlight only comes in from one direction in most windows, and, of course, your plant will grow toward the light. This problem can be fixed by simply turning your plants a quarter turn every time you water them. If you notice your plant is bending noticeably between waterings, it may need to be turned more often. If your plant is too large to turn often, place it on a saucer with wheels to make it easier to move. After turning the plant, it will usually straighten out, but if it is a plant with a woody stem, such as a ficus, it may have a small curve in the stem forever — thus, it is imperative to turn your plant often to prevent this.

Plant Tags

When determining whether you have enough light for the plant you have chosen, check its container for a grower's tag and take the time to read it. Many tags are generic and may label something simply as a tropical plant or a houseplant, which only tells you it won't live outside in northern areas. On the other hand, a tag that identifies the specific plant, such as African violet or staghorn fern, will have more specific information pertaining to it. Try Googling the name on the tag if there is no identifying picture to be certain that the plant listed on the tag is in fact the plant you are purchasing; tags can become mixed up accidentally at the growing facility or garden center.

A plant tag may describe the light needed as high, bright, medium, indirect, part shade, and so on. What is the difference between these descriptors, and what do they all mean? In some cases, they are just different ways of saying the same thing. The chart below decodes some common light descriptors found on plant tags.

If, after placing your plant in the light that the tag recommends, you find that your plant is not doing well, it may be that the light level isn't right for the plant. How can you tell whether it is receiving too much or too little light? Read on.

Too Much or Too Little?

Our plants can suffer if they have too little or too much light. What are the indicators you should look for? Let's talk about too little light first. The first indicator is phototropism, as we discussed shown here. The second sign is that the new growth will be pale with small leaves. In the case of cacti or other succulents, the plants may stretch toward the light and lose their shape. If you have a plant that should normally bloom, such as an African violet or orchid, and it hasn't bloomed within a year, it may not have sufficient light. If you have a plant that collapses for no apparent reason, check the root system. It may be soggy and mushy because the plant didn't have enough light for the roots to use all the water they were given. Plants use more water in higher light. More about that in the next chapter.

You might not have thought a plant could have too much light, but many plants prefer a medium to low light, and light that is too direct or focused on the plant for too much of the day will have adverse effects on them. If a plant gets excessive light or heat, it may wilt severely. If you see this, move the plant a few feet from the window; hopefully, it will recover. Sometimes plants will react to excessive light by curling their leaves down around the pot, trying to draw away from the light, like a vampire. If a plant has been in a low-light situation and is moved to high light, the result will be sunburned leaves. These leaves will not recover and return to their former color or fade to a nice tan, and the growth may be compact and stunted from too much light.

Both too little and too much light can result in the death of a plant if the situation isn't rectified in a timely manner. Pay attention to your plants, and with close observation you'll be able to understand what they are trying to tell you.


Acclimation is a process a plant goes through when becoming accustomed to different conditions than the ones in which it was originally grown. Houseplants are grown in Florida, California, and other places that have more intense sunshine than northern areas. Growers often place them under shade cloths to better imitate the low-light conditions of our homes, essentially starting the process of acclimation for you, but even with this extra care, plants may still react to coming into our dimly lit homes. Place your plant close to a window when you first bring it home, gradually moving it into the place where you want it to be. It may take the plant a few weeks to become accustomed to your home, and it may drop some leaves in the process, but if you have placed it in an area that gives it the light it needs, it should adapt and grow well. In addition to the new light level, the plant also needs to acclimate to the lower humidity of your home — read more about that shown here.


If you find you do not have enough sunlight to sustain the plants you want to grow, you always have the choice to add supplemental light in the form of electric lights.

EVEN IF YOU LIVE in a room without any windows, or without those that let in enough light to grow plants, you can grow numerous plants with electric lights. There are many options, ranging from small and simple devices to larger hanging lights that blend in better with your décor.

Fluorescent light is the most common type of light people use to supplement their plants. There are different types of fluorescent lights to choose from, including T-5, T-8, and T-12 bulbs, the latter being the oldest variety and the most inefficient type. Many growers use T-5s or T8s because they are more energy efficient.

I installed simple, inexpensive, 18-inch-long fluorescent plant lights under my cupboards so that I can have African violets blooming almost constantly on my countertop, right next to the coffee maker. It doesn't get much better than that. Many African violet growers use lights to ensure their plants are growing symmetrically and blooming almost constantly; cacti and succulent growers use them to ensure their plants do not etiolate, thus ruining the natural growth pattern of the species they are growing. It's common for people to grow plants exclusively under lights to give the plants the exact light levels and habitat they need to grow to their fullest potential.

LED lights are the newest lighting method used for plants; they are much more energy-efficient than fluorescent lights. While these lighting fixtures are relatively expensive compared to fluorescent lights, they do last much longer and use less energy, as they do not have to be on as long to affect your plants. Many newer kitchens have LED lights installed under the cupboards as part of the design, and there are grow lights that can clip on to any shelf or even your computer screen to allow you to grow plants essentially anywhere you want them.

Incandescent bulbs are too hot and do not supply the complete light spectrum a plant needs to grow properly. Yet, if a lamp is left on near a plant during the evening hours, the extra light provided will still help your plant grow better.

It adds interest in the evening to up-light a plant with a spotlight on the floor, casting cool shadows on the ceiling, but that really doesn't help your plant grow. The chlorophyll, where the energy is manufactured, resides on the upper surface of the leaves. Lighting a plant from above, on the other hand, will assist it in photosynthesis.

In this book, we will be mainly discussing the plants that can be grown with a modicum of light. If you have that amazing southern sun streaming in and are growing cacti and other succulents successfully, you may think you do not need this book. But if you want to grow plants on your coffee table across the room, this book will help you choose the plants that will be able to thrive in a lower-light situation.


Excerpted from "Grow in the Dark"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Lisa Eldred Steinkopf.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1 Illumination,
CHAPTER 2 Hydration and Vitamins,
CHAPTER 3 Maintenance,
CHAPTER 4 Plant Profiles,
About the Author,

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Grow in the Dark: How to Choose and Care for Low-Light Houseplants 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
apeape 5 months ago
A comprehensive, easy to read book for growing plants that don't require a lot of light, perfect for anyone from beginners to expert green thumbs. There's a lot of helpful information packed in this book, from tips on how to improve your light to which plants are/aren't toxic to pets. At the end there's a list of 50 plants that will do well with less light- I can personally vouch for the pothos; I have one that's at least 25 years old, living happily in a northern facing window with indirect sunlight! A very good reference for anyone wanting to brighten their living space with happy plants! #GrowInTheDark #NetGalley
leylaj More than 1 year ago
Fabulous book both the for the newly motivated to the experienced indoor gardener. The general information at the beginning is really clear, interesting and very easy to read and understand. There is a lot of information with lots of photos and examples. The second part of the book describes the various plants that can be grown indoors with information on light and water requirements, its size and how propagation can be achieved and importantly also if the plant is toxic to pets or humans. This is a very modern book, beautifully presented and very now.
Kelly Hodgkins More than 1 year ago
Recently, I’ve been exploring the amazing ability of plants to purify the air and absorb humidity. Bringing plants indoors has been a habit I have resisted believing it to be a huge effort to keep them healthy. However, the need to prevent damp and remove allergens has made it worth investigating. Light is crucial and spots which are damp aren’t often equally light and so Grow in the Dark by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf seemed to be the logical book to read! Beginning with the principles of indoor plant benefits and care, the book progresses through accessing the area in which the plants will be living and onto the plants which will best suit the environment. Lisa celebrates the good news that “one houseplant placed every 100 square feet will remove [paint, furniture, carpeting and electronic] chemicals” as well as “if there is enough light in your room to read a book, you have enough to sustain a low-light plant.” She shares how to identify from the deceptive plant label which plants are low-light ones as well as which direction of sun is best for each and watering options. The book ends with 50 plants that are suited to indoor, low-light living and highlights the level of moisture required as well as if the plant is pet friendly. None of them are floral, they are leafy and that perhaps was my only disappointment in the book. I had hoped for more than greenness indoors and, fortunately, living in medium rather than low light, I should get away with a few flowers indoors! Practical and easy-to-follow, it is a four out of five on the en-JOY-ment scale! If you are considering indoor plants, this is one to read!