I just want some plants and I want them to live!
February 17, 2017 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I've moved into a dark basement suite and I've been shopping around for plants that will survive. However, I'm having trouble finding consistent information about low-light plants and it's driving me totally bonkers.

I just recently moved into a basement with very, very little natural light. The place does have E and W facing windows but we're also flanked by houses so the amount of natural light that filters in is extremely limited (it sounds depressing but it's not too bad).

There's nothing like plants to make things feel less dungeon-y, though, so I've been searching around for some that will survive pretty well in these conditions. I did a lot of googling for plants that are good in windowless offices and low-light situations, but when I went to the actual plant store I found a lot of contradictory information. For instance, I read that different species of dracaena are good in low-light (e.g. marginata, fragrans) but when I went to the plant store their labels said "requires direct sunlight". A plant that I ended up bringing home (maybe foolishly) was a white bird of paradise which the plant store said would be fine in low-light but, from what I've now read, seems to require 6 hours of direct sunlight? I bought a spider plant, which I'd read are super robust, but it's not doing great in my place.

What's the deal here? Are some sources giving me information on plants that will 'survive' whereas others are all about where they 'thrive'? Are light requirements more finnicky to gauge than one would expect? Which sources should I trust the most? And which plants should I actually be buying for a seriously-almost-no-light situation? (I've looked at the MeFi archives for this one but any new suggestions/suggestions from those living in a similar environment would be great). I've also looked into full-spectrum lightbulbs but I'm not quite sure what to go with, so any suggestions in that regard are also welcome.

I do have a couple snake plants, a colourful aglaonema and a ponytail palm and they seem to be doing pretty well - but they're also relatively small and I'd like to add some bigger plants in here if possible. (I do have a dog but she literally grimaces when presented with anything leafy so no need to worry too much about toxicity). Thanks!
posted by thebots to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
OK, for a totally off-the-wall suggestion (hurr) what about doing a living wall type arrangement with mosses?
posted by Joh at 4:47 PM on February 17, 2017

Peace lilies might do okay. But have you considered getting a grow light (bulb) or two so that you can use that and not worry about the light from the windows? If you go to a hardware store they'll be labeled as such, no need to worry about finding them. I've just used this one before and did okay with it.
posted by dilettante at 5:24 PM on February 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Pothos!!! Perhaps not the most exciting of house plants but they can thrive in low light conditions.
posted by stowaway at 5:32 PM on February 17, 2017 [7 favorites]

I 2nd Pothos and ZZ plants do well in low light as well.
posted by Requiax at 5:35 PM on February 17, 2017

I have , at my plant store, been told that Dracaena, does infact prefer indirect light. I just got a "twister".

Also, try a C.elegans palm.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:01 PM on February 17, 2017

Thirding pothos, and also suggesting "cast iron plant" (forget the scientific name) and "mother in law's tongue" (which I've had many of and have only been able to keep alive by scaling back watering to like, every three months).
posted by lovableiago at 6:03 PM on February 17, 2017

Cast iron plant is widely known as the common name, but the generic name is Aspidistra. That, ZZ, pothos, some Dracaena & Cordylines, Mother in Law's tongue (Sanseveria) and a few philodendrons will probably be fine. Most indoor palms prefer diffuse light rather than low light, so those wouldn't be at the top of my list.

[former wholesale tropical greenhouse manager]
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:21 PM on February 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

Pothos and ferns.
posted by shoesietart at 6:27 PM on February 17, 2017

Hang your pathos right in front of the window and let it vine all over the place. I have mirrors in several places on walls and under the pots even. Makes a bit of difference in the winter.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:32 PM on February 17, 2017

What's the deal here? Are some sources giving me information on plants that will 'survive' whereas others are all about where they 'thrive'?
Basically, yes, though also vendor opinions about what "low light" is and consumer opinions are wildly different. Consumers typically use "low light" to mean approximately equivalent to effectively total darkness. What works to light a room to human eye standards is in no way anywhere near sufficient in terms of strength or spectrum for plants.

Which sources should I trust the most?
Davesgarden is good; llifle is good; Garden Web is good.

And which plants should I actually be buying for a seriously-almost-no-light situation?

I mean, no plant will thrive or even long-term survive in that condition. You're just looking at speed of decline. Slow speed of decline plants include ZZ plant, Sansevieria, pothos, Aglaonema. Your ponytail palm is actually a very high light plant and will probably die first out of your list.

I've also looked into full-spectrum lightbulbs but I'm not quite sure what to go with, so any suggestions in that regard are also welcome.
I just buy CFLs from 1000bulbs to put into standard lamp fixtures and follow the lamp recs on what wattage is appropriate. I also recently invested in two really nice integrated light plant stands, though.

Genuinely, if you don't want to bring in more light, fake plants mixed in with your slowly declining live ones is an option.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:39 PM on February 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

Are some sources giving me information on plants that will 'survive' whereas others are all about where they 'thrive'?

Yes, because people have a lot of different reasons for wanting plants; weirdly, some of them care whether their plants grow/rebloom/etc. and some of them don't.

Are light requirements more finnicky to gauge than one would expect?

Partly that, but I think it's more a language problem. Both authors and readers have different understandings of what "low light," "medium light," "bright indirect light," etc., and although most of the houseplant books I've seen will attempt to define those terms at some point or another, they're often less specific than they need to be. You can tell somebody that a west window should have enough light for something, and then they buy that plant and put it in a west window and it dies, because there's also a tree six feet away from the window that blocks all the light. Or the window is the size of a postage stamp. Or whatever.

And which plants should I actually be buying for a seriously-almost-no-light situation?

My advice would be to forget about finding plants to fit the spot (which may not have enough light for anything; it's hard to tell from the description), and instead make a spot that is broadly suitable to a lot of different plants. I can grow almost anything under LED shop lights, that I hang off of wire shelving units. The shelving is constructed so that the heights of different shelves can be adjusted, so I can keep raising the shelves as the plants get taller, and everybody's happy. (Also cheaper than the integrated light stands of vegartanipla's: shelving units are periodically in the $35-50 range at Target or Menards, and LED shop lights run $20-30 at Costco or Menards. At least around here.)

That may be more of a space/money investment than you're looking to make, but the principle is sound: a decently bright desk lamp with a bright LED bulb, on a timer, or an undercabinet light (maybe a couple of them, depending on how bright one is) would be enough for a couple small trailing plants, and you wouldn't have to worry about the light being adequate.

The other option is to buy one of everything and see what (if anything) survives; vegartanipla's list is a good place to start.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:54 PM on February 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

We don't have any good spots to have plants and sunlight in our house. I buy plants at IKEA and they are all generally "low-light" plants. They have some big ones. They last, well, however long they last. Some have lasted multiple years. And when they stop thriving, I compost them and get new ones. The price is around $6-$20 a plant. But even if they only last a year, it's totally worth it!
posted by amanda at 8:11 PM on February 17, 2017

I kept a sansevieria in a no-windowed room for > 1 year and it happily survived the experience. Buy a larger one--they don't seem to increase in size very actively when not getting light, and they are the only large plants that are manageable in those low light situations. There's something so much more plant-feeling about a nice big waist high sansevieria than a wee little spider plant or pothos.

I have also done a fake plant (basically a bundle of ivy-looking vines in a basket) hanging from the ceiling. Hanging it is what made it work... you didn't ever get close up enough to notice the fakeness, it just provided a splash of green up there.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:38 PM on February 17, 2017

Sheesh, the ponytail palm is another excellent example then @vegartanipla - multiple sources I've seen online have said that it will totally do well in super low-light conditions, and the plant store even marketed it as a "plant of steel" that can survive in almost any situation. So frustrating!

But thanks everyone for the recommendations and the tips - I think I will just have to go ahead and outfit this place with some of the suggested lighting. On the plus side, I have access to a wonderful shed/studio and a backyard with some gardens to use so at least I can always escape during the spring/summer if it's getting too claustrophobic in here. Plants ahoy!
posted by thebots at 9:29 PM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

So on llifle, here's what the ponytail palm listing says: "Beaucarnea recurvata ...give them lots of sun to light shade [outdoors], ... and indoors are manageable in size if kept in a small pot but need a good amount of direct sunlight through the window."

To be fair to your other plants though, the Sansevieria (snake plant/mil tongue) actually wants medium-high light and when I mentioned ZZ plant it wants medium-high light as well; they're just both slow to die. Aglaonema and pothos want medium-low light, but again, that doesn't mean what non-plant-obsessed consumers typically think it does in terms of their effectively dark areas.

Good luck!
posted by vegartanipla at 7:13 AM on February 18, 2017

It might be more than you want to get yourself into, but you could set up a planted freshwater aquarium, which are usually outfitted with slim grow lights, to have a lush aquatic garden to enjoy in the house.
posted by Drosera at 10:11 AM on February 18, 2017

I too live in an apartment with very limited natural light (only north-facing windows, there are maybe like 6 days a year when a sliver of actual sunlight shines into the apartment).

Over the last 3+ years, in just this natural light (no grow lights), the jade, pothos, and aloe plants have grown noticeably (jade and aloe are right in the windowsill, but the pothos is ~10' away). A red aglaonema and a small dracaena haven't died, but grow so slowly that it's hard to tell it's happening.

All these are on the small side though -- I'd love to have some bigger plants but haven't yet found anything that works with my lighting and space constraints.
posted by josyphine at 4:48 AM on February 19, 2017

I'm a horticulturalist. When I lived in a warehouse space with no windows I set up a planted aquarium. As several people have pointed out, when you live in a place that dark you've got to add artificial light. Otherwise you just have plants that have slower metabolisms that will expire more slowly. I chose creating a tiny landscape in an aquarium instead.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:14 AM on February 19, 2017

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