Sun exposure and houseplants: help me choose
April 26, 2022 3:19 PM   Subscribe

I just moved into a new apartment and I want more houseplants, but I'm not that experienced with them and the sun exposure thing is confusing. The plant stand I want to fill is in the living room with a double-wide balcony door that faces NE and the plant stand right up against it. There are no trees or buildings to shade the balcony but there's no direct sun that actually hits the window. I thought because it's a north-facing window it's automatically low light, but my plants are telling me otherwise.

When I moved I put a few of my spider plants and pothos on this plant stand. The spider plants seem ok so far but are looking pretty light green while their clones on the darker side of the room are dark green. And the 2 pothos on the plant stand are definitely getting bleached and unhappy, while their clone that's on the darker side of the room is flourishing. So maybe it's not a low-light area?!?

Now I'm thinking that plants which need part to full shade, like ZZ plants or Cast Iron plants, would maybe hate it? And I had assumed it was too dark for cactus or succulents, but maybe not? What should I try for this spot? The darker parts of the room are already full and this plant stand won't fit anywhere else in the apartment.
posted by 100kb to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I asked about houseplant care some time ago and this was the best answer I could have hoped for.

The book gives recommended lighting conditions for various plants, and I turned my phone into a diy light meter with the app, Photone. It is amazing, I have learned so much about plants from the book.
posted by nanook at 3:27 PM on April 26, 2022 [3 favorites]

Unless you're never home during the day it should be pretty easy to tell how much light that area gets? But yeah anything that wants full shade probably isn't going to like being right in a window.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:29 PM on April 26, 2022

Response by poster: To clarify: I'm home all day so I know the sun never comes directly in that window. But my low-light plants seem pretty unhappy and bleached living there, which is why I suspect it's not actually "low light." I'm looking for specific recommendations of plants that would be happy in this spot. I guess I should have just said it like that to begin with, I ramble too much.
posted by 100kb at 3:34 PM on April 26, 2022

I don't think light green on the spider means it is unhappy. A NE facing window with no direct sun shining in is likely to be low light, bit you should definitely use a light meter to really quantify it.
posted by sulaine at 4:35 PM on April 26, 2022

Best answer: Seconding nanook's recommendation for Darryl Cheng's website, House Plant Journal, and book, The New Plant Parent.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:39 PM on April 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

A north facing window gets a lot of light, just not direct sunlight. So no, it is not low light. I have grown orchids in my NW-facing window sills, and I recommend. They are resilient, easy to care for and pretty. The reason I don't have them now is that I lived in our other home during lockdown. I also had orchids there, but they died during a power outage: they need a minimum temperature of I think about 15 C.
posted by mumimor at 7:00 PM on April 26, 2022

Best answer: I'm incredibly flattered to have my earlier comment highlighted here. Do take a look at Darryl Cheng's resources.

So northeast isn't north. A big, northeast window, especially without shades, gets enough light for lots of plants. Plenty of plants do well facing east or even north.

Plants with variegation often get darker/greener when they need more light. The more light they get, the less green they need for photosynthesis. So, if a plant with variegation is getting less light, it will probably be closer to solid green.

I have lots of the same kind of epipremnum (or pothos), and the one in the lowest light spot is doing fine, but the leaves are smaller and darker and more solid. The ones with more light are showing more white mixed in with the green and the leaves are larger.

I'm not sure cacti would thrive, but you could try one or two if you wanted.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:44 PM on April 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure how your plants can be getting bleached without any direct sun. Could they have inadvertently gotten sunburned on moving day? Are you sure it's bleaching, and not chlorosis?
posted by oneirodynia at 11:54 PM on April 26, 2022

I have big NW windows. I am just learning about plants, so keep that in mind as you read this! I bought a light meter to test the light in my rooms. I vastly overestimated how much light my rooms get. Near the window in spring (northern hemisphere) the light is medium for a few hours, and med-low during the rest of the day. Just a few feet back from the window drops the light amount dramatically. In the winter there's is much less light. My plants were floundering until I figured that out. I suggest you check your light levels - you can download light meter apps. I read Houseplants for All by Danae Horst and she does a good job explaining light, fertilizer, humidity, watering etc. Now I look up every plant I want to buy to make sure I can meet its light and humidity needs.

Also, I don't know if it's true that dark green leaves automatically = a healthy plant. For example, phalaenopsis are supposed to have olive green leaves. Dark green is a sign that they aren't getting enough light.

I am having success with baby rubber plants, pilea peperomioides, phalaenopsis, and dracaena marginata. I'm thinking of getting a parlor palm and chinese evergreen plant next.

I also have a pachira aquatica and anthurium. They're doing ok, but I think they'd thrive with more light. I will definitely have to supplement their light in the fall and winter.
posted by Stoof at 11:54 AM on April 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The pothos by the window have 2 issues: many leaves are sad-looking and light yellow rather than green, and also there are brown spots on a few of the leaves (they look like the photo here under "direct sun exposure"). It's possible they got sunburned on moving day (6 weeks ago) and haven't fully recovered, but the pothos far away from the window is not yellow and has put out a ton of new leaves since moving while the ones near the window haven't. All are cloned from the same plant, get watered based on soil dryness, and are non-variegated (solid green).

I think the suggestion of Darryl Cheng's work is going to be how I figure this out, so thanks for that! I'll definitely pick up the book and try to get a light meter. He has this interactive chart which tells me that spider plants want 2x the light of pothos. But both are called just "low light plants" in the random blog posts I've been reading. So that's very enlightening!
posted by 100kb at 1:03 PM on April 27, 2022

If you share some photos of the plant itself, I’m sure folks would also help diagnose!

I can say that plants don’t really recover from leaf damage, whether from sun or anything else. New leaves will grow but that leaf itself won’t re-green itself.

Is it possibly near a heat duct?
posted by bluedaisy at 4:20 PM on April 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

If the leaves are damaged by sunburn, they won't recover.

It sounds more to me like your plants aren't getting enough light, especially if they aren't putting out new leaves.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:22 PM on April 27, 2022

On preview, what bluedaisy said, and yes to photos.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:23 PM on April 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Here are some photos, first one is the pothos that's been putting out a ton of new leaves, the next 2 photos are of the pothos near the window. They weren't near a heater but I think they maybe got left in the sun when I moved.

Given that everyone can't agree on whether my living room is, or could be, low light, and that a "low light plant" doesn't seem to mean much biologically, I am going to get a light meter and use science to figure out what plants I should buy.
posted by 100kb at 5:26 PM on April 28, 2022

Well, let's take a big step back. Your living isn't low light. Your living room is a large room. There are some spots that are lower light than others. And of course we don't know because we haven't seen it and are just guessing based on your description. When you get the light meter, make sure to test specific spots at a few different times of day.

That amount of damage to the leaves doesn't seem all that significant to me. If you ever see these plants growing in their natural tropical areas, they have leaf damage all the time. It's not necessarily something to worry about if you have just one or two spots (like I have probably 75 or more houseplants and I just looked at a few of mine that are quite healthy and have some of that kind of leaf damage).

I am wondering if you let the water drain and them empty the cachepots when you water them, because it could also be an early sign of root rot.

Are the oldest leaves, the ones closest to the pot, the ones turner lighter? That's a normal progression. The oldest leaves will die and fall off and new ones will grow. That's part of what healthy plants do.

Finally, I'm wondering what variety of plant you have. The plant with the damaged leaf has one leaf with a gorgeous bit of darker green variegation. I wonder if your plants are losing that nice variegation because they aren't getting enough light. Do you remember if the leaves used to have more color variety?
posted by bluedaisy at 8:48 PM on April 28, 2022

Response by poster: The leaves have never had variegation at all, I had assumed that darker green spot was also damage. All 3 plants in these photos are propagated from one larger plant that's in a different room, which also doesn't have variegation. I got that plant and a few others as part of a grab bag from someone who was leaving town so I don't know what they looked like before.

The yellowest leaves are definitely the ones closest to the pot, I didn't realize that was normal and assumed that plus the brown spots was an early sign it was going to die. I will confess I have been sort of lazy about taking them out of the cache pots to water. It's a pain to take them out and put them back again so I sometimes don't. The bottoms of the cache pots have a layer of clay beads, I don't know if that changes the equation at all.

One thing I forgot to mention is that I bought 2 Dracaena cintho a few weeks ago and had them in that window, they immediately started curling their leaves and getting brown edges. I moved them into a darker corner after the first week and they look like they've improved, still brown on the edges but the leaves have uncurled. That was another thing that made me suspect the light in that area wasn't "low light plant" friendly. I'm looking to add plants to that window specifically and I don't want to keep buying things and putting them there and then having to move them away again.
posted by 100kb at 7:59 AM on April 29, 2022

Best answer: The damage isn't sunburn. Those look like Neon pothos, with a few darker green spots (which is not unusual). Agree that the brown spots can happen when they're being overwatered, and can be a sign of disease. I would remove those leaves. The sort of general paleness for a chartreuse pothos also makes me think they may be getting watered too often- you want the top inch or two of soil to dry out. I see no signs of sunburn at all from these photos.

Clay beads may or may not make a difference as to how long your plants are sitting in standing water- it just depends on the amount you pour in. You want the plant pot to be able to drain, so the beads should enable the plant pot to be above the water level.

The first photo shows some signs of low light issues- long internodes between leaves. This area is actually not bright enough for your pothos.

Dracaena leave will curl and the edges brown with low humidity. Are there drafts by that window? Are they in the path of moving air from a fan or furnace? It is highly unlikely that a northeastern window will burn any plants, unless it gets hot morning light shining through. If you don't get direct morning light it is not too bright. Dracaena need fairly bright light indoors.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:33 PM on April 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

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