Direct vs Indirect Sunlight: Which One Suits Your Plants Best?

Some plants love direct lights, while others are the exact opposite. So, you have to ensure they get the proper light requirements. Otherwise, it will harm your plants, or worse, they will die. Sunlight or artificial lights are also crucial for photosynthesis, where they produce food and energy. Reflecting on the importance of light intensity for light, we want to dive deeper to discuss the difference between direct vs indirect sunlight for plants.

Furthermore, our experts are willing to share insights to choose the right location with ideal plant sunlight exposure. Therefore, they can happily flourish wherever you plant them. Without any further ado, let’s discuss them one by one!

Direct vs Indirect Sunlight for Plants

To begin, we will touch on the most critical part of this discussion topic: direct vs. indirect sunlight. Even though it looks obvious, some people struggle to differentiate the two. On the other hand, some conclude that any light coming through the window is definitely an indirect one. So they put their low-light plants near the windowsill.

While others are sure an outdoor garden is the best place to put the sun-loving plants. But are all these opinions accurate? To answer those doubts, read the following sections and find the facts!

1. What is Direct Sunlight and Indirect Sunlight 

So, what’s direct sunlight? Direct sunlight is light that shines on your plants directly without obstructions. These beams can be leafy trees, tall buildings, net or sheer curtains, or the position of your windows if you plant them indoors.

Furthermore, this light exposure will benefit plants, especially those that like to soak under the sun. They can get optimum sunlight to carry out photosynthesis. However, such a light intensity will also burn leafy plants despite being beneficial to keep the green colors of the leaves.

direct vs indirect sunlight
Indirect Sunlight for Plants

On the other hand, indirect lights provide gentle lights that are preferred by plants that require low light conditions. In general, indirect sunlight will pass through your plants through the leaves, curtains, or window film in your window. You can also get this light intensity through a mirror reflection.

With no excessive exposure, some gardeners or plant collectors prefer bright indirect sunlight for their plants. They believe such a light level protects plants from sunburn and crisp leaves. In addition, it prevents dehydration which is often caused by the evaporation of soil water due to the hot sun.

However, indirect light may not be suitable for desert plants like cacti and succulents. So, make sure you know the characteristics of your plant first because the preferences for growing requirements are different.

2. What Does Direct Sunlight for Indoor Plants Look Like 

Usually, people will have difficulty distinguishing between direct and indirect sunlight indoors. But let us guide you on how to check on it. If you find the light passing through your indoor space looks intense, solid, and bright, with no shadow or blurry cast, we can clearly state that it is direct sunlight.

More specifically, no barrier blocks light from directly exposing your plants. You will get such light intensity with south-facing windows.Nonetheless, west-facing can be direct and indirect, depending on the season. Summer and winter will give you the brightest light on the west wings of your house.

3. What Does Indirect Sunlight for Indoor Plants Look Like 

Unlike direct sunlight, indirect sunlight is dimmer. The light is faded, not intense, and does not feel burning. The periphery of the light is gentle, not sharp like the direct one. Such intensity results from light having bounced off some objects before shining on your plants. Sometimes, they also peek through the dense foliage’s crevices, making it softer.

Then, where can you get such light indoors? The best areas to place your shade-loving plants are north-facing windows. This site will not get direct sunlight. East and west-facing windows can be alternative options. However, you may display plants only during the early morning and late afternoon.

How To Measure Light Levels for Plants

To ensure that the light intensity is suitable for your plants, there are several methods you can try. Some are easy, and some require additional equipment to determine the exposure.

direct vs indirect sunlight
How To Measure Light Levels for Plants

Here are three easy practices you can try to measure the light levels of your precious plants:

1. Shadow Test

This is the easiest test you can do at home at no cost! Place your hand between the sunlight exposure and your plants. Make sure you do it when the sun is shining (at noon is the best!). Then, check on the shadows. If your hand shadow looks solid black and sharp, it is direct light. Meanwhile, the indirect light will show a slightly faint shadow on the edges, resulting in one or more shadows.

2. Observe Growth Rate

This method is arguably a kind of experiment to determine whether your planting area follows the required growing conditions. Plants that are supposed to grow under direct light will thrive under such a lighting condition. Their leaves will get greener, and they may start flowering.

When they don’t get enough sunlight to succeed, the stems and leaves will grow leaning toward the light source. Its growth is much slower. For the variegated foliage or flowers, they will begin to faint. However, those that can’t handle the sun will wilt, yellow the foliage, and crimp the edges. Not to mention they can get dehydrated so fast due to quick soil evaporation.

3. Using Light Meter

If you want to be more precise, buying a light meter or installing the app on your smartphone is the ideal choice. Basically, a light meter will measure light in a foot-candles unit (fc) or lux. The foot-candle unit refers to the illumination of one candle per one foot square, while the 1/10 foot-candle is how the lux is calculated.

Once you open the sensor on the light meter, point to the light source and read the numbers on the screen. In case you have it on your smartphone, find the light source and face the camera on it. Make sure you turn on the outdoor setting even if you stay indoors.

The following range will guide you to determine whether the exposure is direct or indirect:

  • > 1000 fc equals direct light.
  • > 500 to 1000 fc equals bright indirect light.
  • 100 to 500 fc equals to medium indirect light.
  • 25 to 100 fc equals low indirect light.

Direct vs Indirect Sunlight Seasons

As we briefly glimpse the influence of seasons on exposure to sunlight and its position, it’s time to discuss it further. Direct vs indirect sunlight seasons literally mean a season where one of these light intensities dominates over the others. It is due to the difference in angle between the sun and the earth.

Take direct sunlight, for example. You will expect intense, strong sunshine during the summer months, particularly at the summer solstice. In the northern hemisphere, it will usually happen in the middle of June, while the southern will experience it at the end of December.

direct vs indirect sunlight
Succulents in Pot with Sunlight

Furthermore, the heat seemed to be concentrated on the earth, which is burning and scorching hot. However, it only covers small areas on earth. Some of them, such as those in the equator: Southern Africa, Central America, and some in Asia. Sites that get this kind of light benefit because they produce abundant crops all year round.

On the other side of the earth, indirect light will cover most areas, especially during winter. No wonder the plants that grow in these countries, regions, places, or whatever you name it tend to love shade more than the sun. Or, they prefer filtered and partial sun, so to speak.

Regarding the sun’s position, you can place plants that favor low light conditions in the north-facing areas of your house, west and east. But, it must be taken into account that the west and east wings will only apply in the early morning and late afternoon. On the flip side, the south-facing is the ideal area to live your sun lovers’ plants. West and east sites are also great at mid-noon.

What Type of Plants Need Direct Sunlight?

Plants need sunlight to grow, especially to carry out photosynthesis. In addition, sunlight is also required for those flowering plants to encourage blooming. Without the sun, they will lose their beauty. One of the flowering plants that love direct sunlight is the sunflower.

As the name suggests, they will even follow the sun’s direction from sunrise to sunset. Moreover, purple cone-flowers and Shasta daisies belong to those that can’t live without full, direct sun.

Tomatoes Vegetables with Outdoor Sunlight
Tomatoes Vegetables with Outdoor Sunlight

The need for direct sun does not only apply to flowering plants; some vegetables also perform best under such a lighting level. Some of them are the Cucurbitaceae family, including cucumber, watermelon, and squash. Tomatoes and peppers also love to soak under the sun. No wonder these vegetables are called warm-season crops.

Furthermore, their growth will be stunted in the absence of sufficient sunlight. And worse, it can trigger diseases and pests and stunt growth. Also, if you have citrus, figs, or persimmon trees, don’t let them suffer under shade. The harvests will be much smaller if they lack sun exposure.

What Type of Plants Need Indirect Sunlight?

Unlike sun-loving plants, those that prefer indirect sunlight will find the full sun a threat. Maybe early on, they can cope with it. But later on, they will start crumbling, seeing from the crisp foliage, wilting and yellowing leaves, and even fall entirely over due to dehydration.

direct vs indirect sunlight
Beautiful Monstera with Indirect Sunlight

If you have Monstera, for instance, don’t dare expose the fenestrated leaves to the bright sun. You’ll highly likely see wilt and burn leaves in the following days. Place it near the east-facing window with the curtain attached so that the sun passing through is not too intense. Other than Monstera, some flowering plants like begonia, astilbe, fuchsia, and bleeding heart also favor indirect sunlight, which is gentle to their blooms and foliage.

In addition, leafy vegetables, such as lettuce, kale, and spinach, hate the bright direct sun. They will immediately wilt when grown in hot areas with scorching sun throughout the day. And for that reason, they belong to the cold-season veggies that are indeed ideally growing in cold climates. Similarly, berries like raspberries and blackberries like to hide from the sun. Partial shade areas are the best place to grow those fruits.

How To Tell If Your Plants Are Getting Too Much Light

Too little is bad. But too much is also not recommended! Sunlight, initially beneficial for plant survival, has negative effects if it is too intense.

Here are five signs that your plants need shelter from the sun:

1. Floppy Leaves

If you notice the leaves on your plants are drooping, it may alert you if they are dehydrated. Dehydration may be caused by the evaporation of water from the soil too fast due to high temperatures. In addition, the wilting of the leaves also indicates that your plant will die if you don’t take action, such as shading it when it’s hot.

2. Brown Spots

In some plants, droopy leaves will be followed by brown patches that appear on the leaf surface. They pop up as a signal that they are being burned by the hot sun. Before it spreads any further, take them indoors or to a shade patio where they can have indirect light for a while.

Plant With a Yellow Leaf
Plant With a Yellow Leaf

3. Faint Color

While some plants use sunlight to maintain the beauty of their leaves, others will lose the pattern under extensive sun exposure. One that can’t handle the bright direct sun is Calathea. Apart from losing variegation, such a plant will experience sunburn on the leaves, leaving them with brown marks.

4. Crispy Edges

When you see crispy edges or leaves on your plants, you must immediately move them to the shaded area. It is a sign they are getting intense sun exposure they don’t need to thrive. You can cut the damaged leaves to keep the healthy ones growing.

5. Dry Soil Surface

Similar to point number one, sunlight that is too hot will make the process of evaporation of water from the soil very fast. It is, of course, detrimental to your plants because they will be thirsty. Consequently, they will reduce water consumption by wilting or shedding leaves.

Final Thoughts

The difference between direct vs indirect sunlight lies in how the light can pass through and shine on your plants. There is no best or worst, as each plant requires a different light intensity. Just make sure you know the characteristics of your plants first before determining the planting areas. It is crucial to avoid the harmful effects of excessive or low sun exposure on your plants.


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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is direct sunlight for indoor plants? 

Direct sunlight is an unfiltered light that shines on the plants in your garden without being blocked by other objects, such as clouds. However, this kind of light exposure can also pass through the windows. Especially if your window faces south. So, growing plants indoors that need direct light is possible. Just put them on the windowsill to feed them the required lighting levels.

What is considered indirect sunlight for plants?

In contrast to direct light, indirect sunlight is a condition where sunlight is filtered by objects. Sometimes, they could be dense trees outside your window, curtains, or clouds. If your plants (for instance, Monstera) need bright indirect sunlight, the best place to display them is east or north-facing windows.

Do plants need direct sunlight or just light?

Your plants need light for photosynthesis, whether direct and indirect sunlight or artificial light. This process produces food and energy for plants to thrive. However, sunlight exposure is better because it provides the necessary light wavelength. In the case of winter conditions, you can help him by installing lights that have a red wavelength of 600-700 nm (nanometer), blue of 400-500 nm, and green of 500-600 nm so that photosynthesis runs optimally.

Is Light Through a Window Considered Direct Sunlight?

Depending on the location, sunlight that passes through the window can be direct or indirect. Suppose your window is in the east-facing or south-facing position, without any obstructions, like curtains, trees, or bushes that grow in front of it. In that case, you can say it is direct light. On the other hand, it will be filtered sunlight if you install window film on the window or some objects prevent light from directly shining on your plants.

Can plants get enough light through sheer curtains?

Of course, sunlight can pass through sheer curtains. Only it will be filtered to prevent excessive exposure towards plants that require low light conditions. You can also put a net to replace the curtains in case you can’t get one. Such lighting levels will allow the plants to receive lights necessary for photosynthesis, while avoiding harmful effects on the leaves.

Do mirrors reflect enough light for plants?

If your plants receive enough light to thrive, you can help them with mirrors! The reflection you point towards the plants works just the same as they get light from the sun. It does best for those requiring partial sunlight because it is not as intense as direct light. In addition, you can also use mirrors to brighten up a shady area in your outdoor front yard.

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