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Use the Right Lights to Grow a Jungle In Your Dark Apartment

Illustration: Ben Kling
The HomebodyThe HomebodyGear, expert tips, and general wisdom from a seasoned apartment recluse who's made it into a living. Let out your inner hermit—or rather, don't.

Mark Twain said “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Yes, mostly true, point for the crotchety elitists. In the houseplant community, a common sentiment is that an indoor jungle is something that everyone wants to have grown but nobody wants to grow. And sure, plenty of people want an instagrammy greenspace and have no desire to cultivate it, but plenty of others are WILLING, they just don’t have the RESOURCES.

Water is—sort of—free. Dirt you can buy. Sunlight, though? You can’t buy that.

Actually, you can.

I’ve got 95 plants in my apartment, and only 1 room with windows that don’t look out onto a nearby brick wall at ground level. How do I do it? Smart Plugs and Grow Lights.

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Now listen, there are a lot of products out there calling themselves “grow lights.” Maybe some of them work fine, but I’m going to save you the hassle and tell you what you need for most basic indoor plants to thrive: Bisexual Lighting.

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For real! These are the beams your plants need:

Blue photons (λ 430 to about 480 nm) promote root growth & photosynthesis efficiently.

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Red photons (λ 620 - 660nm) promote stem growth, flowering, and the production of chlorophyl.

Illustration: Ben Kling
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Your plants do not NEED light from the green-yellow bits of the spectrum. They can use it, but it’s not energy efficient to produce, and most plants will thrive on a carefully mixed cocktail of Red, Blue, White, IR (just a little heat), and UV.

Luckily, the cocktail has been mixed for you, in the form of LED array “bulbs” that screw into normal (A19) light sockets.

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Small: [28 watt]

Graphic: Amazon
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22 Red + 12 Blue + 2 White + 2 IR + 2 UV

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Medium: [50 watt]

Image: Amazon
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42 Red + 18 Blue + 6 White + 6 IR + 6 UV

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Large: [100 watt]

Graphic: Amazon
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100 Red + 35 Blue + 10 White + 5 IR + 6 UV

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Very simply: I’ve tried all sorts of grow tech, and these are the bulbs I buy. I popped them into work lights, set some timers, and my plants, which had always just been just sort of staying alive, began to thrive immediately and never stopped. I’m talking inches of growth in a month. Philodendrons couldn’t pump out new leaves fast enough. You can actually see where I started using them if you look at some vines. It’s like spindly, spindly, spindly, POOF: new leaf every centimeter.

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Also, a pretty funny warning: The first week I had the lights cycling, all of the garlic, onions, and potatoes I was keeping on my counter sprouted! I have to keep them in cabinets or burlap now; that’s how legit this fake sunlight is. Related: don’t point the bulbs at wine you’re storing long-term or clear water-filled vases you don’t want them growing algae.

I can say without bias that the biggest size of bulb is worth it. Once you see how well this technology works, you’ll want to maximize the amount you’re using. I buy an additional one every few months. They’re all going strong after years of use and use relatively little electricity because they’re LEDs.

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Here’s the rub: these lights are intense. They may strain your eyes and leave neon green after-images under your eyelids. And to see noticeable effects on plant growth, I’ve found that you need to leave the lights on for at least 6 hours a day, up to 12 if you can manage.

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So if the whole point of this mess is to beautify your living space and you don’t want to feel like you’re living in an underground weed farm, what do you do? It helps to use smart plugs!

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