Best Grow Lights for Growing Vegetables

What Kind of Grow Light Is Best?

By Benjamin Kilbride
September 29, 2019
Ben's Grow Lights

Just because the days are growing shorter and, in general, cooling down, that’s no reason to consider the growing season over and done. Greens and some herbs will flourish indoors, under grow lights! Here’s what to consider when choosing light bulbs.

What Kind of Grow Light is Best?

Lighting options are wide-ranging, from fluorescent to HID (high-intensity discharge) to LED (light-emitting diode). Each type has an array of power requirements, brightness levels, and color temperatures.

  • Fluorescent lights are an effective supplement to natural (window) light. Traditional fluorescent bulbs are tube-shaped and fit into specialized fixtures; Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) are corkscrew-shaped and feature the same screw-in base that incandescent bulbs do, which allows them to fit into most household fixtures. Fluorescent lights put off minimal heat and a good amount of light, but are not as efficient or long-lasting as LEDs.
  • High-Intensity Discharge (HID) lights are ideal for growing maturing edible plants. However, HIDs are expensive, use electricity inefficiently, and give off quite a bit of heat. Despite this, they are widely used in plant nurseries and large-scale grow houses because of their raw power.
  • Light-Emitting Diode (LED) lights: For efficiently growing large numbers of plants, LEDs provide the best results. They use significantly less power to produce more light than traditional CFLs, and they produce very little heat. Although LEDs have traditionally been more expensive than fluorescent bulbs, the lifetime of an LED bulb is far longer and their up-front cost has begun to drop in recent years.

LED grow lights

Buying Grow Lights

Before you purchase grow lights …

  • Decide how many plants you want to illuminate and how much area they will occupy under the light(s). This will enable you to calculate how many bulbs you’ll need.
  • Figure out what sort of plants you wish to grow. Edible plants that are grown purely for their leaves—such as salad greens and herbs—can be grown under bulbs that primarily emit blue light, as this encourages chlorophyll production and foliar growth. Plants that are grown for their fruit or flowers require the addition of red light, which encourages blooming. For the healthiest plants, use a combination of both blue and red lights—or a full-spectrum bulb, which emits both wavelengths of light. 
  • Think about how to position the light(s) over the plants so that you can easily alter the distance between the lights and the plants as they grow. Common options include suspending the lights from chains above your plants (e.g., on the ceiling or a sawhorse) and adjusting the chains as the plants grow. Or, stabilizing the light(s) and setting the planters on a stack of books, removing volumes as needed to lower the maturing plants.

Grow lights in shelving rack

  • Remember, too, that each type of grow light provides a different amount of light. To be most effective, each light should be a specific distance from the plants: Fluorescent lights should be 3 to 12 inches above the tops of the plants; HIDs, 24 to 60 inches; and LEDs, 12 to 24 inches.

Plants grown under lights indoors need more hours of light than the same plants do outdoors. Grow lights should be on for at least 14 but no more than 18 hours per day; even indoor plants need a minimum of 6 hours of darkness each day.

Watch our video on how to use grow lights successfully!


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Reader Comments

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Respectfully disagree with several things in this article

I respectfully disagree with several items in this article. 1. CFL and the old fluorescent light bulbs are not the same. However, both work fine for grow lights IF you get the right wavelength of light. 2. There is no need to send more money for "full spectrum grow lights" vs. lower cost lights. For non-flowering plants like lettuce, spinach, etc., just make sure you get lights in the "blue light" spectrum, 6000-6500K (Kelvin), which is written on whatever wrapping package the bulb is in. 3. Six (6) inches above the seedlings is too high if you are starting seedlings. They will be spindly. 2-3 inches is better.

Questions About Lighting

The Editors's picture

Thanks for reaching out! We always appreciate hearing what our readers have to say. We’ve made a few edits to the article to clarify. We’re not familiar with any significant differences between CFLs and traditional fluorescent tubes, but it is true that the correct wavelength of light is important. It’s also true that non-flowering plants such as leafy greens can be grown under blue-spectrum lighting, whereas for flowering plants, a full-spectrum light (or a combination of blue and red) is preferred. Again, you are correct: 2 to 3 inches is better for growing seedlings, depending on the type of light and how bright it is. Thanks again for your feedback!